Beauty contestants, Southport Merseyside, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones, © National Media Museum
London is a blackhole which tends to suck cultural, economic and political capital away from the rest of the country. The decision in the eighties to locate the National Media Museum in Bradford was a coup for the rest of the country, but limited the potential audience for the museum’s vast collection. This weekend after years of delay and much anticipation The Science Museum’s new Media Space opened. A dedicated photography and arts venue, Media Space looks set to bridge this geographical gap, offering a London home for displays drawn from this esoteric media archive as well as giving the capital it’s first major new photography venue in years.
The inaugural exhibition is a longer overdue retrospective of the work of English photographer Tony Ray-Jones, a mixture of vintage prints, new selections by Martin Parr and some of Parr’s own early black and white work, photographs which clearly demonstrate Ray-Jones’s influence. Also on show are the ephemera which seem to be an increasingly normal inclusion in such shows. These include Ray-Jone’s diaries, which are full with meditations on his relationship with photography and his subjects, and which in some cases are scrawled with frantic, revealing notes of self-guidance like ‘BE MORE AGGRESSIVE‘ and ‘DON’T TAKE BORING PHOTOS’.
Born in 1941, his artist father Raymond Ray-Jones died when the younger Ray-Jones was less than a year old. After an unhappy time at school he studied photography at the London College of Printing under Ralph Brandt (Bill Brandt’s brother) and then continued his studies in the United States at Yale. Here he came into contact with Alexey Brodovitch, the influential art director of Harper’s Bazaar whose students included Richard Avendon and Irving Penn. Tony Ray-Jones however largely eschewed this world of fashion and editorial photography, instead developing his own style of photography in the streets.
In New York he honed his eye, shooting alongside Joel Meyeoritz with whom he became friends. New York at the time must have been quite a schooling, with photographers of the caliber of Meyeowitz, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander all working the busy streets. Geoff Dyer wrote that ‘you get the impression that the city was so busy with photographers that on 5th Avenue they must have been bumping into each other the whole time’. Ray-Jones immersed himself in this theatre of the street, documenting the eccentricities of this frenetic metropolis. This subject matter would continue to define his work on his return to England in 1965.
From his return until his death five years later at the age of thirty, Ray-Jones worked on what would become a seminal body of work eventually titled A Day Off, a self-funded study of the English character and customs which he believe was being eroded by the post-war influx of American culture (which in photographic terms he was also somewhat ironically a bearer of). The first gallery consists of vintage prints made by Ray-Jones himself at this time. These photographs are engrossing on multiple levels. They have obvious value as studies of English eccentricity, a characteristic mirrored in Ray-Jones himself. He wrote in his diary. ‘A genuine eccentric is one who pursues his own version of the truth and value of things untainted by outside pressures or conventions’, an apt definition of a man who trail blazed a new style of English photo documentary.
While the historic and cultural value of the photographs are interesting in themselves, I find myself still more drawn to the Ray-Jone’s photographic technique and the general tension he managed to invest in each photograph. There is often something dynamic and uncomfortable about them, even where they are compositionally stable. Ray-Jones frequently captures scenes where multiple strands of action seem to be unfolding in isolation from each other. In some there is almost no interaction between the subjects, not even crossed sight-lines, they all gaze off in different directions, caught in their own flow of events. Equally he often hides away little details, rewarding longer investigation of each frame. In a photograph taken at Eastbourne in 1968 a father and son are apparently asleep on a deckchair, wearing matching cowboy hats, this tranquillity is pierced when a viewer notices the father’s barely open, but accusatory eye.
The second gallery consists of a display of Martin Parr’s first significant body of work, produced soon after leaving college in 1975. The Non-Conformists documents the Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge, it’s Methodist chapels, strange fraternities and archaic traditions. Given Parr’s indelible association with the first successful spasms of British colour photography it’s interesting to see examples of his black and white work. It’s also revealing in that this work lacks the undertone of mocking cynicism that Parr’s better known colour work (like The Last Resort) is often accused of having. Instead the photographs of The Non-Conformists are as meditative and calming as the place they depict.
Like Ray-Jones, Parr’s project was evidently motivated by a sense of English cultural decline, and Ray-Jones’s photographic influence is evident in more than a few of the photographs. For example the back to back composition of a 1976 photograph of gamekeeper and his dog by Parr echoes the same composition in a 1968 Ray-Jones photograph of an elderly couple in Blackpool. Still the photographs feel more stable and considered, apart from a few exceptions they don’t seem to have Ray-Jones’s startling tendency to make the very ordinary seem uncomfortably out of place.
The final gallery is dedicated to a new selection of Ray-Jones photographs made by Parr from nearly three thousand contact sheets. It’s a tricky thing to select a photographer’s work in their absence, the nuances of editing being often as delicate as the process of photographing. Parr is obviously aware of this, conceding himself that there’s no way of knowing if Ray-Jones would have approved of his selections. A nice touch is the last display in the gallery, a series of light box mounted contact prints giving viewers an opportunity in effect to judge a few of Parr’s selections against the photographs taken before and after them, a display with also interestingly reveals something of Ray-Jones’s working methods. But ultimately it’s hard to get away from the feeling that this gallery is as much or more Martin Parr than Tony Ray-Jones, a feeling exacerbated by the large prints which look more like the big, white prints of Parr’s Non-Conformists, than the small, dark vintage prints of Ray-Jones’s A Day Off.
It’s easy to underplay Tony Ray-Jones’s significance, one could easily say he that he just imported a peculiarly American style of photography to England, transferring the public drama of the street to the beach, a place where in the words of his widow Anna we English go in order be ‘grimly happy’. Yet there’s much more to these photographs, maybe most of all the humour which runs down from these photographs, through the generation of Parr and contemporaries like Paul Reas, and on into a certain number of the photographers of today. Only in England is on at Media Space until March 16th 2014.