Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr on display at The Science Museum’s Media Space.
Written for the latest issue of YET magazine (be sure to check it out!)
“Here they come. The bloody English… in their Zephyrs, Wolseleys and Anglias. Off to their beauty pageants, caravan parks and penny arcades. Off on their day trips and annual marches. Off to watch the children’s arcade. Off to their dog shows and fancy-dress competitions. To eat their buns under umbrellas. To sit in deckchairs in their suits and ties…” (Mick Jackson)
Few things scream ENGLISH quite like the idea of a beach outing on a cold and cloudy day, a picnic in the rain, or the spot-on combination of tea and cake. Outsiders may view them with sceptical amusement, but for as long as we can remember, the English have been associated with the most peculiar of pastime traditions – eccentric habits which, decade after decade, they look upon lovingly and always with a sense of nostalgia.
For Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr, it was ordinary quirks like these that made for the subjects of years and years of research, of hundreds of rolls of film. Only in England gathers together in an insightful retrospective the work of these two great British photographers who were driven by an enduring passion for the English, for those day-to-day peculiarities that characterised life on the island in the late sixties and seventies. The exhibition focuses first on Tony Ray-Jones’s The English – a project later published in his book A Day Off – and then takes us back to those same locations ten years later, with Martin Parr’s The Non-Conformists – directly inspired by Ray-Jones’s work. Finally, we’re presented with a collection of Tony Ray-Jones’s previously un-exhibited images, selected by Parr. The exhibition creates an unconventional outlook onto certain aspects of British society over the past decades, and constitutes the opportunity for the materialisation of a deep bond between two artists who, regrettably, never had the chance to meet face-to-face.
Between 1965 and 1969, Tony Ray-Jones photographed with devoted sensibility those aspects of English life which, although rather familiar, fascinated him deeply. It was when studying in America in the early sixties that he came into contact with street photography, and upon his return to Britain, Ray-Jones dedicated himself to creating a both wistful and witty portrait of English society – before his career was cut short by his sudden death in 1972 at the age of thirty. With an impeccable capacity for composition, Tony Ray-Jones captured scenes of English everyday culture in a way which emphasised its distinctive idiosyncrasies. His interest lied not in making a social commentary, but simply in documenting aspects of a way of life which he perceived to be fading away, slowly being taken over by a gradual Americanisation. In a letter to a publisher he writes: “My aim has been to make a subjective record on the English people, particularly during leisure time. I have tried to show their way of life and to underline English characteristics.” Through grainy black and white images of seaside towns, horse shows, carnivals, street markets and penny arcades, Ray-Jones portrayed a country in a moment of transition with a refreshing sense of humour, whilst also expressing a nostalgic sense of attachment to those habits and traditions which the English held so dear. His is a praise to the eccentricity of a nation’s customs.
And so, in Only in England we come across comical photographs such as Brighton Beach, in which a group of elderly women wrapped up in winter coats sit in deckchairs, eating, drinking tea and knitting on the beach. Behind them, naturally, the sky is dreary and grey. Occasionally, the humour almost seems to descend into eeriness, as in the surreal scene of Eastbourne Carnival which portrays a young girl standing next to a disturbing Mickey Mouse and other odd figures – she holds a sorry looking puppet in one hand and a small trophy in the other, looking utterly discontented. In others, a new town mayor is being weighed, miserable looking children sit by a river on a day out, a man stands by the road in a suit and batman mask. We can almost picture Tony Ray-Jones attentively moving through the English streets, ever ready for strange situations to unfold before his camera like sketches in a comedy show.
Displayed alongside pages from Ray-Jones’s journals, these photographs become an anthropological study of sorts. His notebooks include dated postcards of Brighton and Bognor piers, lengthy lists of books to read – bearing titles such as “British Taste”, “Working Class Community”, “English Psycho Analysed”, and an old copy of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. For Ray-Jones, documenting English life was not merely about being out there and taking photographs, but a matter of fully understanding its culture through his own visual and written studies, and through other people’s experiences and records of it. In the extracts from his notebooks we come across “British characteristics and qualities” in comparison with “US characteristics”, and other lists such as “Impressions of the north” – which although describing a bleak and traditionally grim northern England, also mentions “small china dogs next to a potted plant behind a window pane”. Just like in his photographs, Ray-Jones is sure to include an element of humour, caught by his ability of finding amusing details in ordinary everyday scenes. Another fragment which grants us insight onto Tony Ray-Jones’s approach is a small piece of paper on which he lists twelve commandments, twelve golden rules to always bear in mind when taking photographs. “Don’t take BORING pictures” it reads in capital letters, with the word “BORING” underlined three times in red pen. (…And not a single one of his photographs can be described as such.) It’s not often that we’re granted such an intimate glimpse into a great photographer’s method of study. To be able to do so is to look upon their work and perceive exactly what it is that captured the photographer’s attention in that precise fraction of a second.
Only in England then directs its focus onto the early work of Martin Parr. Ten years on from Ray-Jones’s The English, Parr moved to Hebden Bridge where over a period of five years he documented the life and landscape of the town’s community, which revolved primarily around the church. Ray-Jones’s influence on Parr’s The Non-Conformists is undeniable, in subject-matter and in approach alike. They might not be the colourful photographs that spring to mind when we think of Martin Parr, but even in these black and white images from forty years ago, his vibrant style is unmistakable. In documenting the life of Hebden Bridge Community, Parr seemed to be constantly waiting for absurd situations to unfold, or for quirky individuals to pass by. A pair of oversize spectacles, a woman’s flamboyant hat or a peculiar expression become decisive elements in a comical interpretation of a common everyday scene. Both Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr managed to capture these simple scenarios in a way in which they appear as if staged, a parody of the English lifestyle. Because of their simplicity, the impression we get is that these incidents could almost go unnoticed. Although surely a casual passer-by would have noticed the young boy lurking behind a monument, a toy machine gun in his hands pointing out towards the congregation and brass band gathered for an outdoor church service?
When captured by Martin Parr, simple, ordinary scenes become emblems of an England which Ray-Jones described as “a country lacking in drama”, yet one where “the people have the sense of drama”. A silver Jubilee street party, against a backdrop of an industrial landscape, is caught in the merciless rainstorm of a Yorkshire town. In Steep Lane Baptist Church Buffet Lunch, a prim elderly woman in a Sunday hat dips a teaspoon of sugar into her cup of tea as she converses with an aged couple in the foreground. Behind her, above her head, hangs a painting of the Last Supper, Christ’s posture mirroring her own, in a perfect contrast. Whether they be images of foggy moors, textile factories, or church services, Parr is always sure to slip in an element of humour, a characteristic magic touch given by the subjects’ interaction, timing, composition and lighting all lining up impeccably. But it’s images entitled Lee Dam Annual New Year’s Day Swim, or depicting mouse shows and pigeon competitions held in local pubs that, when viewed side by side, really make us realise just how odd many traditions can seem. Blimey.
The last section of the exhibition is dedicated to a collection of Tony Ray-Jones’s previously unpublished and un-exhibited photographs, thoughtfully selected by Martin Parr from 2500 contact sheets. These “new” images, which might otherwise have remained stored indefinitely in the archive of Bradford’s National Media Museum, offer a rare and broader introspection into Ray-Jones’s work and research. The photographs have been chosen by Parr following different trains of thought, and draw attention to more crowded shots, to different aspects than those which the photographer chose to highlight. In print, they retain Tony Ray-Jones’s characteristic tonal range and contrast.
We once again come across pleasure piers, fancy hats and rainy picnics on the beach, but also street scenes, fish and chip shops, festival goers and swimmers taking a dip in an ice-cold Serpentine lake – a scene which recalls Parr’s own winter bathers. Further away from the tranquil seaside towns, Tony Ray-Jones ventures into London’s East End streets, amidst Brick Lane’s market stalls, through council estates and across the City’s financial district. The English eccentricity is often a subtle one. In one photograph, four ordinary blokes stand on a traffic island on Bethnal Green Road holding dogs on leads. Initially we’re drawn in by the flawless composition, by the impeccable balance in the arrangement of the subjects, we then notice that one of the young men holds a monkey peering out from his winter coat.
The order in which the photographs are displayed underlines the surreal nature of the images themselves, by creating compelling juxtapositions such as in the striking sequence of two photographs displayed side by side. The first is a landscape shot taken in Margate, in which a horse runs across a field on the left-hand side of the image, a man in a top hat stands in the centre of the frame with his back turned to us, gesturing to his right where, bizarrely, an elephant stands. The second image is a more quotidian one, a short-haired girl in sunglasses sits on the Brighton beach, playing 7-inch singles which lie scattered out on her towel. Another selection of notebook pages, written in his handwriting now all too familiar to us, reveals a list of subjects due to complete his ambitious project. “Seaside”, “traditions” and “old customs” have all been checked off. Other subjects, such as “immigrants” and “the suburb” remain for the most part undocumented, his work cut short by his premature death. The final wall of the exhibition greets us with a large collage of contact sheets, in which Tony Ray-Jones’s approach to his subjects is palpable. From the initial encounter with a scene in the first frame of a sequence, up to the final flawless shot in which all the elements fall into place, we can almost sense his alertness, his patience.
It’s difficult to imagine to what lengths Tony Ray-Jones would have taken this project, or what kinds of images he’d be producing today. But picking up where he left off, we have Martin Parr and his witty observing of contemporary society. Together, these two photographers have created a unique portrait of English culture, and rendered timeless a peculiar way of life. A way of life which however still feels somewhat familiar, as if these little, distinctive quirks haven’t quite disappeared altogether, but can be found today in humble seaside towns or down forgotten countryside roads. One only needs to know where to look.
Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr, is on at the Science Museum until March 16th 2014.