Only in England @ the Science Museum

This is a fabulous exhibition of black and white photographs of ordinary English life in the 1960s and 70s. It’s divided into three sections:

  1. Photos of English life by pioneering b&w photographer Tony Ray-Jones, taken 1965-69.
  2. Early photos by English photographer Martin Parr, from his first work, The Non-Conformists, a five-year project to photograph the people and life of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire from 1974-79.
  3. Photos by Ray-Jones selected by Parr from the 2,500 negatives held in the Ray-Jones archive in Bradford, and exhibited here for the first time.
Blackpool, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Blackpool, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

1. Tony Ray-Jones (1942-72)

Tony Ray-Jones died in 1972 from leukaemia, aged just 30. After studying photography in England in the late 1950s he went for further study in New York between 1961 and 1964. The exhibition explains that in America ‘the street’ was much more a focus of outdoor life and community and was much more photographed and described than in rainy England.

When he returned to the UK in 1965, Ray-Jones was determined to apply the American aesthetic to record the quirks and character of English street life and his pioneering approach to the drama and narrative of ‘ordinary’ life became hugely influential on all succeeding photographers.

The exhibition commentary picks out the importance of the seaside resort as a kind of quintessence of Englishness and the exhibition is full of images of stoic holidaymakers braving bad weather while drinking tea. In image after image Ray-Jones captures that special atmosphere of drizzle and disappointment only to be experienced in a rainy English seaside resort. As Martin Parr points out in the short film which accompanies the exhibition, England’s seaside resorts are often less changed than inland towns. In some ways being at the seaside is like travelling back in time.

Beauty contestants, Southport, Merseyside, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Beauty contestants, Southport, Merseyside, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Ray-Jones spent the later 1960s travelling extensively all over England, observing human beings in all their eccentricity and quirkiness. He was photographing what he saw as a disappearing way of life, aware of the onrushing encroachment of Americanisation, of consumerism, of white goods and conveniences which was replacing the England of back-to-backs, outside loos and heavy prams.

Ramsgate, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Ramsgate, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Ray-Jones made extensive preparations for his visits to each location, treating his work almost as an anthropologist’s project, setting out to learn about the place and people he was about to study. The exhibition shows his notebooks along with lists of books and articles to read. He was also fond of writing lists of dos and don’ts to himself:

  • stay with the subject matter
  • be patient
  • vary composition – Be aware of composition
  • Get in closer. ‘If a photograph isn’t interesting enough you’re not close enough’ – Robert Capa
Location unknown, possibly Morecambe, 1967 – 68 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Location unknown, possibly Morecambe, 1967 – 68 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

I think two closely-related things are going on in these photos, to do with narrative and composition.

  1. Narrative The commentary talks about the influence of film, comedy, maybe even cartoons on Ray-Jones’s eye for narrative, by which it means his eye for dynamic interaction between his human subjects. Something is always happening, often something ordinary and small, but something dynamic nonetheless: the woman in the second row of deckchairs giving us a baleful look; the beauty contestant wiping her mouth while the young man at the counter admires her bum and the old man sips his tea oblivious to both; lots of things in the Ramsgate photo; and the interplay between the four men and dog in the Morecambe photo can also be studied and pondered and enjoyed for some time. These photos are wonderful because they show us how rich and strange and complicated the most mundane of human moments are.
  2. Composition The frame is full with incident always occurring at the edge. Your eye is drawn to the people at the edges, and then back to the central figure(s), who are often interacting with figures at the periphery, after looking at which you look again at the central figures – in a repeating loop, as you discover more and more disconcerting or odd or amusing details – making the experience of looking at these photos very dynamic and rich. Another photographer might have been content to frame the three beauty contestants, as quite a lot is going on with just them. But Ray-Jones widens the frame to include the old man drinking tea and the whole group at the desk or cupboard, turning a snap into something more like a short story with half a dozen characters all interacting in ways only their glances and looks and bodily attitudes can reveal.

2. Martin Parr b.1952

Martin Parr is, according to the exhibition, one of the most successful and interesting photographers working today. Born ten years after Ray-Jones, he was inspired by his photography course at Manchester poly in 1973 to be more personal, to incorporate elements of narrative into his pictures. He had discovered Ray-Jones’s photos in the year of his death and was very influenced by their power and depth. The exhibition features a set of prints from Parr’s first work, a five-year-long study of life among the hill farmers and non-conformist chapels of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire which resulted in a book The Non-Conformists.

Mankinholes Methodist Chapel, Todmorden 1975 by Martin Parr © Martin Parr/ Magnum

Mankinholes Methodist Chapel, Todmorden 1975 by Martin Parr © Martin Parr/ Magnum

Like Ray-Jones, Parr also felt he was documenting a vanishing way of life, visibly so as the congregations in the chapels aged and died and weren’t replaced by the young, distracted by the ever-widening consumer culture. I loved photos of the Hebden Bridge Mouse show and pigeon competition or an evocative image of the 1977 jubilee celebration tables abandoned in pouring rain. Parr’s prints are bigger and easier to read and enjoy than the early Ray-Jones ones, which required a bit of bending into and using glasses. Not only are they bigger but their use of space is cleaner and more monumental. He tends to have one person or only a few people as the focus, unlike the impression of teeming multitudes given by many of the Ray-Jones’ photos.

Tom Greenwood cleaning 1976 by Martin Parr © Martin Parr/ Magnum

Tom Greenwood cleaning 1976 by Martin Parr © Martin Parr/ Magnum

3. Martin Parr selects Tony Ray-Jones

In the third part of the exhibition, Parr was invited to make a new selection of over 50 previously unseen works from the National Media Museum’s Ray-Jones archive. This archive holds some 2,500 contact prints, vastly more than the 80 or so photos included in Ray-Jones’s only published work A Day Off: An English Journal, unfinished at the time of his death and published posthumously in 1974.

The short film in the exhibition has Parr sharing the excitement of opening and seeing some of the collection for the first time, being amazed by not only the number of images, but the memorabilia and especially the notebooks which Ray-Jones kept. The images from this section were printed bigger than the earlier vintage stuff, remastered or something to make the prints the same size as the Parr ones. This made them easier to see, allowing the viewer to enjoy the drama and narrative of the compositions.

Eastbourne Carnival, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Eastbourne Carnival, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

The commentary points out that Ray-Jones was also attracted to the ‘Season’ of regular annual fixtures – Epsom, Ascot, Crufts, Chelsea Flower Show –  which continually throw up the dysjunction between the ‘glamour’ or ideal version of events, and the mundane and sometimes bizarre realities as men carry heavy pots of flowers to and fro or groups of dogs cluster incongruously around their owners before going onstage.

But it’s the beach photos which, in the end, speak of something permanent in English life, a heedless provinciality, a blithe gracelessness, a lumpiness and ugliness and crudeness and vulgarity, which is in Chaucer’s dirty stories and Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals, an enduring part of the mongrel English character – which speaks to us of a pre-media, pre-celebrity, pre-image-obsessed era, of a kind of innocence which seems fragile and precious, and which Tony Ray-Jones’s great works of art will record forever.

Brighton Beach, 1967 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Brighton Beach, 1967 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

You get a useful overview from the YouTube video of the show.

The exhibition is now, unfortunately, closed in London, but is moving to the National Media Museum in Bradford where it opens on 28 March and runs until 29 June.

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