“Here they come. The bloody English .. in their Zephyrs, Wolseleys and Anglias”
Images are reproduced by kind permission of Media Space and the Science Museum to whom I am indebted for access to their exhibition Press Pack
I recently visited the new gallery at the Science Museum Media Space in London to view the Only in England exhibition showing the works of Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr. Media Space is a collaboration between the Science Museum and the National Media Museum in Bradford, home of the National Photography Collection. It is the new photography and art gallery which first opened to the public around two months ago and is designed to showcase the National Photography Collection and wider Science Museum collections with the objective of “Bringing together photographers, artists, curators, and the creative industries, Media Space will explore the relationships between, and lesser known histories of, photography, science, art and technology.” The project cost £4.5m and has 525 square metres of exhibition space.
Only in England purports to “explore the relationship between the works of the British photographers Tony Ray-Jones (1941-72) and Martin Parr (1952 –).” The exhibition was essentially in three parts, with works from Ray-Jones and Parr themselves and a new collection of sixty images selected by Parr from Ray-Jones’ archives.
Bill Brandt is named by Ray-Jones as a major influence, and I have posted before, Brandt is one of my favourite photographers, although many of his images were taken before my time. Ray-Jones and Parr however were active right through my formative years and they both photographed many of the things I remember and were part of as I grew up. Parr comments in a number of interviews that Ray-Jones was a major influence on his early work and direction. I was not aware of the Brandt link before the exhibition and it is therefore interesting that three photographers that I have come to admire turn out to be sequentially linked in time, as well as linked by a love of the deep blacks that I find so fascinating.
It was interesting that there were almost no pictures throughout the exhibition which showed people looking happy, which was not my recollection of the childhood I was experiencing at the same time. My wife commented on this as we went round the show and an older woman behind us chipped in “That’s because we were all bloody miserable, life was hell ..” This agrees with author Mick Jackson in his piece written to accompany the exhibition when he describes the English as being “resolutely cheerful on their joyless holidays.”
The exhibition curator Greg Hobson writes in the booklet which accompanied the exhibition that Ray-Jones was “the first British photographer to successfully combine documentary photography traditions with fine art sensibility” and claims that he created images that had a profound effect on British photography and challenged the photographic establishment with his claims that photojournalism, fashion and advertising photography were ‘phoney baloney’. The untimely death of Ray-Jones at the age of only 30 meant that his work, although widely recognised by the photographic community in the UK, never had the impact on the general public that is evident for the widely acclaimed Parr.
The unifying theme for me between Ray-Jones and Parr is that both successfully capture the absurdity of life in England and the ridiculous way in which the English are prone to behave. Both have captured the social divides and recorded the plethora of strange, almost ritualistic events in which the English indulge, especially around events at the seaside. One image from Ray-Jones that stimulated attention in the exhibition notes and also by Sean O’Hagan writing in the Guardian was Beachy Head Boat Trip, 1967 where the central couple have been captured in a rapturous moment whilst all around them show an unconcerned indifference, with many of the glances looking out of the frame, maybe at the cliffs, or maybe not.
In his notes written for the exhibition Parr makes an astute analysis of what he sees as the reasons for Ray-Jones’ success and points out his skill in getting the subjects placed perfectly in the frame and his spatial awareness, often pushing subjects to the edge of the frame to “establish a tension in the balance of the photograph”. Looking through the images it began to become clear to me how often this was done and what a successful device it was for drawing the viewer through the narrative in the frame; there is so much going on and so many stories being told in the photographs. Parr’s selection for the exhibition resulted in the display of 56 previously un-exhibited Ray-Jones images which were selected from around 2500 contact sheets.
Ramsgate, 1967 is a great example of the approach to which Parr refers. The figures in the photograph are linked via their location and the activity of being at the seaside, yet are separated into a series of individual scenes being played out. It is possible to move round the frame and crop out five events all of which would have been intriguing in their own right. Brighton Beach, 1966 and Blackpool, 1968 are more in close up, but the direction of the gazes in the former and the intriguing placement of the figures on the periphery of the image in latter draw the viewer into wondering about the events taking place outside the frame.
The images from Parr were from his series shot in Hebden Bridge in the Calder Valley in Yorkshire in 1975-79 and he captures in his resultant work The Non-Conformists the lives of those he befriended and regularly photographed in an existence largely dominated by chapel. Although this represents a remarkable historical record of ordinary lives, I found it was poignant in the way that Parr framed his images and what could have been turned into a humorous series poking fun was transformed into a sensitive portrayal of the life and times of those he photographed.
Some of the most fascinating exhibits were the copious notes that Ray-Jones wrote concerning the strategy for his shoots and plans for what he was aiming to do and what had to be done to achieve his objectives. I have reproduced one page below which seems particularly pertinent, and in it Ray-Jones makes notes about how he could improve his approach. It is a good guide for any photographer I think .. be more aggressive …. don’t take boring pictures … get more involved …. take simpler pictures …. not all eye level … no middle distance … This is an aspect of the exhibition that seems to have stuck a chord with many commentators, and indeed it was highlighted recently by Sean O’Hagan in the Guardian and The British Journal of Photography also produced a piece specifically directed towards the notebooks and Ray-Jones.
BJP (2013) Archive: Tony Ray-Jones’ Notebooks, British Journal of Photography, September 2013
The new facility at the Science Museum is a well-lit and airy space that I thought lent itself well to the images on show. There were some clear differences between the ways that the photographs were mounted and shown. The original Tony Ray-Jones photographs were quite small and all mounted in portrait oriented frames regardless of whether the prints were portrait or landscape. The frames were black and distributed linearly and evenly around the gallery wall and around the ‘island’ in the middle. In contrast, Parr’s images were larger, mounted in brown wooden frames and mounted to match the orientation of the prints. The Ray-Jones images that were selected by Parr were again larger than his originals, but did match the same black frame type.