The new Media Space at the London Science Museum is a long-awaited southern offshoot of the National Media Museum in Bradford, and its inaugural exhibition is ‘Only in England’, featuring works from Tony Ray-Jones from the late 1960s and from Martin Parr’s first major show ‘The Non-Conformists’ from the late 1970s.
As well as providing his own photographs – clearly inspired by Ray-Jones – Parr has also curated a selection of 60 previously unpublished Ray-Jones images from the National Media Museum archives.
I hadn’t heard of Tony Ray-Jones before this exhibition was announced; he was England-born but worked in New York alongside such luminaries as Garry Winogrand, and in the late sixties came back to England to apply some of the NY street photography aesthetic and technique to the English. Sadly he died in 1972 aged only 30, so the images here represent his last major body of work.
Ray-Jones had a fantastic eye for the quirky details in seemingly mundane situations. He came back to England in 1966 to record what he saw, with a returning native’s eye, as the eccentricities of the national character, particularly at leisure. His settings of choice were seaside resorts, beauty pageants, carnivals – worlds that resemble normal life but were just slightly out-of-kilter. They capture the English attempting to let their hair down, not always looking wholly comfortable doing so.
Despite the late 60s setting, the look and feel seems more 1950s, not simply through the use of black and white but in the clothes, faces, even postures of the subjects – as if the permissive age hadn’t quite hit these pockets of England yet. When you see the odd long-haired youth in a motorbike jacket, it’s as visually jarring as it would have been at the time. Was he trying to capture a disappearing era, consciously or otherwise?
His images are masterpieces of self-contained narrative. Some are multi-layered tableaux where your eye wanders around, taking in all the characters, while others (including several chosen by Parr) demonstrate how he could use space in an image to draw attention to a simpler but equally fascinating point of focus.
I found lots of humour in the Ray-Jones pictures; sometimes just a facial expression or an incongruous element, but always something that pointed to a playfulness in the way his camera had caught the scene, even when it was underpinned with a sense of melancholy. I wandered through the first room of the exhibition with a wry smile on my face for much of the time. He really captured the provincial English character fantastically well.
Martin Parr was studying photography while Ray-Jones was working, and happily admits his influence. While Parr’s early work is clearly influenced by Ray-Jones – black and white, focusing on small aspects of English life, capturing a disappearing era – the subject matter (local Methodist communities in West Yorkshire) is a little different. And yet Parr’s most famous later work shares much in common with Ray-Jones subject-wise – the English at leisure, especially at the seaside – but by that time he had developed his signature style of social documentary in a saturated colour palette. So it seems that he was inspired by Ray-Jones in different ways at different times in his career.
It is interesting seeing Parr’s 1970s work; to me there was a sense of someone still trying to find his style. Some images are character-based and feature the flashes of humour that he learned from Ray-Jones, while others are much more formal in their composition, such as the straight-on shots of doorways, shop fronts etc, and the shot with the elevated factory worker with outstretched arm, an apparent crucifixion allusion. There are a trio of shots of ‘Lord Savile’s gamekeepers’ where the first two look classically posed, almost painterly, while the third introduces a bit of cheeky humour in the form of what looks like a dog defecating in the snow (well, I thought it was funny). One other thing he shares with Ray-Jones is a deliberate lack of topicality in the settings; many of the images, particularly the local village shots, could be from the 1940s rather than the 1970s.
So it’s fascinating to see the thread of influences running through the work of these two kindred spirits… Ray-Jones brings a NY documentary approach to England, which Parr then takes and ultimately develops into his own brightly coloured later style.
I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition, and learned a lot about what made these two photographers so individually and jointly distinctive. They shared a similar eye for the rich seam of eccentricity that runs through the English and how they live their lives – in a warm, non-judgemental, celebratory way.