“Goethe said, ‘I raised myself little by little to the height of objects’. Also he said: ‘The world is richer than I.’ It is the opposite to Romanticism, is it not? It is this that influenced me very much in the sense that I tried to put some of this objectivity into my photography.” Brassaï to Tony Ray-Jones, Creative Camera, April 1970.
One day in 1971, Bill Jay, the writer, editor and energetic promoter of photography, gave a lecture at Manchester Polytechnic on his friend, the English documentary photographer Tony Ray-Jones.
Watching Jay’s slide show was a student called Martin Parr then experiencing the freedoms of college life after an adolescence divided between Surbiton Grammar School, the Methodist youth club and Saturdays bird-watching with his civil servant father at Hersham Sewage Works in Surrey.
Now among the biggest names in photography, Parr says that Ray-Jones captured the feeling of the time in a new way. “It was his ability to construct complex images, with everyone perfectly placed in the uniquely English atmosphere and surroundings which struck a chord, of recognition – and envy – in me,” Parr writes in the handbook for Only In England, the inaugural show at the Media Space at the Science Museum in London.
Ray-Jones’ black and white images subverted the conventions of social documentary photography in Britain. Parr’s early work in northern England, however, continued the evocative approach that had dominated news and documentary photography since the depression years of the 1930s.
Parr, now 61, told The Sunday Times Magazine in 2008 that as a young man he tried “to show the traditional aspects of working-class life in a lyrical way.” The Mass Observation study, established in Bolton in 1937, was, he said, “truly inspirational, and the reason why I went north.”
Some years before, Tony Ray-Jones warned himself off the subject, writing in his notebook: “Be careful not to harp on the Industrial North. This has been much overdone.”
Martin Parr inherited his love of photography from his paternal grandfather George Parr, a keen amateur photographer and Methodist lay preacher who lived with his wife Florrie in Calverley, West Yorkshire. Childhood holidays with his grandparents were happy times and after graduating from Manchester, Parr moved to Hebden Bridge, a fading mill town just 20 miles from Calverley.
In Hebden Parr helped set up the Albert Street Workshop and went out with his future wife, Susie Mitchell. Now a writer and researcher, Susie is author of the introduction to Parr’s latest book, The Non-Conformists (Aperture, 2013) which was published to coincide with the Media Space exhibition.
Susie was drawn to Parr by the seriousness of his work, she says, “despite his eccentric appearance and behaviour.”
Parr’s income at the time came from teaching and from grants. In May 1976 The Times reported that Parr, then aged 23, was the recipient of a bursary of £2,500 from the Arts Council, a sum worth well over £15,000 today. Another successful applicant that month was Josef Koudelka who received £4,500.
In The Non-Conformists Susie Parr writes, “Wanting to work together, we started tentatively to document things that seemed to be deeply traditional, or in decline, or both. For us, there was something about the Non-Conformist ethos that resonated with the West Yorkshire outlook: hard-working, frugal, temperate, disciplined, self-reliant, fond of tea and cake.”
On the cover of the book is a photograph of the Mayor of Todmorden’s Inaugural Dinner, an almost Renaissance image of politely jostling figures, their attention focussed on the buffet of sliced ham and pork pie on the table before them.
The opening picture inside the publication is Silver Jubilee Street Party, Elland which appeared in Parr’s first book, Bad Weather, published by Zwemmer in 1982.
As the Elland community sheltered under a canopy behind him Parr photographed their table, lovingly laid with cakes and sandwiches, as the wind tore at the linen and the rain lashed down. After three-and-a-half decades this remains one of Martin Parr’s most evocative individual images because the absence of people makes their presence all the more strongly felt.
AN EXPLOITATIVE MEDIUM
There are hints of the later, steely-eyed Parr, but as you turn the pages of The Non-Conformists, or walk round Parr’s section of the exhibition at the Science Museum, the strongest sense you get is that of looking in on the end of a way of life. A feeling best evoked by Parr’s photographs of the Greenwood family – Sarah Hannah, her brother Charlie and cousins Stanley, Bert and Ida, all Pennine farmers, who formed the core congregation at Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel.
“It was a subject he was familiar with,” writes Sandra S. Phillips, Senior Curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in Martin Parr (Phaidon, 2013 55s edition). “He was raised a Methodist and his grandfather was a lay minister, and his images of this particular subject are some of his most tender.”
This warmth is reflected in the exhibition video by Nick Street. In it Parr describes how he went through 2,500 contact sheets in the Tony Ray Jones archive at the National Media Museum in Bradford to select 55 never-before published or exhibited photographs. The video’s seamless transitions from Parr’s populated black and white stills to luscious, unpopulated colour reinforces one’s awareness of the rural depopulation that has so radically altered the British landscape.
In her introduction to The Non-Conformists, Susie Parr also touches on the misunderstandings that can happen when photographers and writers do their stuff then move on. The Parrs put a lot into the neighborhood around Hebden Bridge, it seems, but they were documenting its decline, not investing in its future. “Stanley Greenwood took our interest in the community and chapel as a sign that we might be the ones who could keep the chapel going in the future,” she writes. “Hopes dashed he expressed his disappointment with some bitterness”.
In I’m Buggered Without My Prejudices, an interview published by Creative Camera in 1996, Parr said, “Early on I used to deny that I had prejudices or was exploiting people or being voyeuristic – as all photography in a sense is. But yes, I represent these very qualities that sound slightly negative. Having admitted it, it’s like coming out of the closet in a way. Photography is a naturally exploitive medium.”
COLOUR NEGATIVE ?
The Parrs left Hebden in 1980 when Susie found work in the Irish Republic. They had just married. Martin set up a darkroom in Boyle, County Roscommon and continued to shoot quirky and predominantly sympathetic images in black and white which were published and exhibited as the projects A Fair Day and Bad Weather.
In 1982 Susie Parr took a job in Liverpool. Their new home was in Wallasey on Liverpool Bay a short distance from New Brighton, a down-at-heel seaside resort which Parr began to photograph with a blunt, more confrontational approach – a change of direction he attributed to aesthetic imperatives.
To record this people’s escape, where day-trippers roast in the sun or shelter from the rain under deck chairs and women change their baby’s nappies in a bleak environment of concrete, formica and overflowing rubbish bins, Parr swapped the Leica M4 he had been using for a medium format camera, the Plaubel Makina, loaded with amateur colour negative film. He used flash to fill in the shadows, which made the amateur film colours appear brighter and the images look harsher.
Stephen Shore, with American Surfaces, began to use amateur film and processing as a comment on the places he encountered in his travels. William Eggleston used flash in some of his colour work.
“I thought my previous photographs looked dowdy, and that if I was trying to document over-the-top holiday scenes, I needed to use colour,” Parr told The Sunday Times Magazine. “And when I made the move, it changed my tune. I suppose I started to make a critique of society as it is, rather than a celebration of what it used to be.”
“I don’t do work to be controversial. But if it is, I’m not upset. I’m interested in pricking people and making them unsure as to how to react,” Parr explained to Creative Camera in 1993.
The Last Resort was exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery in London and published as a book of the same name by Dewi Lewis in 1986. The response from the critic David Lee, that with Martin Parr “Our historic working class, normally dealt with generously by documentary photographers, becomes a sitting duck for a more sophisticated audience,” was not untypical.
There remains, however, a truism in the art world that Parr had now joined. Ibsen put it like this to Munch when the painter’s first exhibition was panned by the critics: “The more enemies you make, the more friends you will have.” 1
THE MODERN LOOK
In 1972 Anna Ray-Jones, Tony’s widow, set out for the South of France with a group of Tony’s friends. Although they were carrying Tony’s ashes with them the party were in good spirits because they knew he would have approved of their purpose. In Provence, they scattered the ashes where the ashes of Alexey Brodovitch had been scattered a few months earlier and retired to a restaurant.
Tony Ray-Jones had lost his father when only eight months old and trained as a graphic designer before turning to photography. In New York, Brodovitch, a legendary figure in magazine design and a brilliant mentor, came to replace the father Tony never knew.
A former White Russian cavalry officer and designer for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, Alexey Brodovitch had moved to the United States in 1930 to teach advertising design. In the States he established the ‘must-attend’ avant-garde Design Laboratory in Philadelphia and became art director at Harper’s Bazaar in New York, where “magazine editor as auteur” Carmel Snow charged him with the task of turning Bazaar into the equal of Vogue. “The minute Brodovitch arrived, the look of the book changed,” writes Penelope Rowlands in her biography of Snow. “There seemed to be a clear theme running through each issue, as well as immense variety.”
Photography was central to the modern look Brodovitch gave to Bazaar. He interspersed dynamic layouts of fashion shoots by Munkácsi, Man Ray, Hoyningen-Huene and Blumenfeld with illustrations and photo essays by Cartier-Bresson, Brandt, Kertész and Brassaï.
In the late 1950s Carmel Snow retired and Brodovitch, who, over a quarter of a century had established himself as one of the most influential figures in his field, left Harper’s Bazaar without a pension. Ill and depressed following the death of his wife, Nina, and unable to meet his hospital bills in the States, the alcoholic Brodovitch moved to the south of France in 1966 where Tony Ray-Jones visited him on several occasions.
Ray-Jones tried, without success, to secure financial assistance for Brodovitch and to raise the pioneering designer’s profile in England. When Brodovitch died all but forgotten in 1971 Ray-Jones was severely shaken. Within a year he too would be dead. 2
REVEALING THE INVISIBLE
Tony Ray-Jones was born in 1941 at Wookey Hole, Somerset, the youngest of three sons to Raymond Ray-Jones, a respected painter and etcher, and his wife, Effie Pearce, a physiotherapist. Despite coming from the upper-middle class, Effie led an impoverished, peripatetic existence following Raymond’s death in 1942. In 1951 the remaining family settled in Hampstead and Tony was sent to a school in Sussex which he hated bitterly. 3
In 1957 Tony began a four-year course in graphic design at the London School of Printing (now the London College of Communication) which was located in the old Daily Mirror building at Back Hill, Clerkenwell.
As a student Tony suffered from “crippling self-doubt,” writes Richard Ehrlich in his detailed introduction to Tony Ray-Jones (Cornerhouse, 1990), he was, however, “good at what he did.”
Bill Brandt, shown some of Ray-Jones’ early photographs would later write, “He had already then a very pronounced style of his own. He didn’t seem to be influenced by other photographers, which at his age, was quite remarkable.”
On graduating Ray-Jones won a scholarship to Yale University School of Art from which he took a year’s leave. He moved to New York, a city he loved, and joined the Design Laboratory which Alexey Brodovitch had reestablished in Richard Avedon’s studio on East 58th Street.
In attending the laboratory Ray-Jones was following in the footsteps of the photographic heavyweights Irving Penn, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Avedon himself (who as a talented young photographer in the 1940s had been encouraged by Brodovitch to bring Munkácsi’s outdoor spirit of spontaneity into the studio for Harper’s Bazaar).
“Whatever potential [Tony came to the States] with, it was catalysed by America, by Alexey Brodovitch and the New York milieu. And the discovery of photography coincided with his discovery of New York,” Anna Ray-Jones told Richard Ehrlich.
Among those Ray-Jones met at the Design Laboratory was native New Yorker Joel Meyerowitz who had quit his job as a designer to explore the city as a photographer. Meyerowitz shot black and white and they both started using 25 ASA colour transparency film to investigate the dynamics of crowds and street parades. “We used these parades as a laboratory,” Meyerowitz recalled. “We learned how to shape pictures that were not about an event but about an observation.”
Robert Frank’s The Americans had signaled the end of the idea of the documentary photographer as poetic witness of the human condition in the United States. Their role now was to expose the world as in an anatomy lesson filtered through the photographer’s mind.
“It is important to see what is invisible to others,” Frank said in 1957. In his wake came Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and, famously, Diane Arbus.
Some believe Tony Ray-Jones was the bridge between America and the UK but in terms of impact it was Martin Parr’s The Last Resort, published in 1986, which really brought the shock of the new to Britain.
Parr’s success lay in combining an almost scientific, Arbus-like, examination of English culture with the full-on colour of Eggleston and Shore. Employing this approach as Margaret Thatcher’s brash market economy altered the country for good was Parr’s masterstroke.
OLD ENGLISH CUSTOMS
After five years in the States Tony Ray-Jones returned to England with something of an outsiders view and a new confidence in his abilities as a photographer. He also resolved to make ‘an important statement’ about English society which, inspired by Bill Brandt’s The English a Home (Batsford, 1936), he wanted to publish as a book.
What he hadn’t settled on was the approach that would allow him to merge his abilities and intentions into that important statement.
The answer came when a young anthropologist called Alexandra Court showed him The Country Life Book of Old English Customs by Roy Christian. He recognised its potential immediately. “The value of custom – what it is, how to recognise it, and its relation to national identity – gave Tony a framework in which to see into English life,” Court told Richard Ehrlich.
According to Alexandra Court, “That was the critical step. It was then that he became a photographer.”
Ray-Jones bought a VW camper van and disappeared for weeks on self-funded trips shooting what English tradition and culture he felt would be lost to encroaching Americanisation. He used a Leica M3 with a 35mm lens. On the wall of his London flat he hung a map of England which he dotted with pins. The British Tourist Authority was phoned often for information.
“The resulting photographs are remarkable,” a large panel informs the Media Space visitor. “Characterised by wry humour, they are nonetheless full of melancholy and lament [for] the disappearing cultures that influenced Ray-Jones’ own emotional and artistic development.”
In 1969 54 of these images and sixteen portraits by Ray-Jones were exhibited as The English Seen, part of the first photography exhibition held at the ICA following its move to Carlton House Terrace the year before. “I think we are looking at the early work of a great photographer,” wrote Ainslie Ellis, a contributing editor for The British Journal of Photography about the Ray-Jones exhibition. 4
Original prints from The English Seen could be bought at the ICA bookstall for six guineas each. Now worth considerably more, five of the surviving prints from the show are displayed in a cabinet in the Media Space exhibition, four are from Martin Parr’s own collection, the fifth, Ramsgate, 1967, from that of the National Media Museum.
Ray-Jones also produced a spiral-bound book dummy titled England by the Sea, which he touted both sides of the Atlantic without success. In March 1972, when about to agree a publishing deal with Thames and Hudson, he fell ill and died from leukemia aged just 30.
A Day Off: an English Journal, containing 120 photographs was published posthumously in 1974. Writing the introduction, Ainslie Ellis touched on surrealism and on the feeling that the best images by Tony Ray-Jones “seem to be single frames, fluidly and fluently composed, from a film that was running constantly through the gate of his mind.”
“This film was the statement he was burning to make about life,” wrote Ellis. “Time will, I am certain, merely deepen its relish and enhance its value as a true and graphic portrait of the English social scene.”
“The pictures are so iconic,” Martin Parr said at the press view of Only in England at the Media Space in September 2013, some forty years later. “Margate, Glyndbourne and Beachy Head Tripper Boat are inscribed in my mind, impregnated in my system. Tony Ray-Jones pointed the way to what was possible.”
Bill Jay, who died in 2009, believed that Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï and other French photographers influenced Tony Ray-Jones just as much as the Americans he had met. “Tony’s work has more of the softness, humour and irony of these French masters than of the hard-edged toughness of Americans like Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand,” Jay said of his friend in Ehrlich’s Cornerhouse publication. However, Jay also told The Guardian in 2004, “You can exaggerate Tony’s influence.”
It is debatable that Ray-Jones was the pioneer of a new kind of photographic vision espoused by some and the exhibition implies when it tells the visitor that the “dramatic narratives” of The English Seen at the ICA in 1969, “heralded a new departure in photography.”
“In Britain alone the groundwork laid by Ian Berry, Philip Jones Griffiths and David Hurn refutes this,” argues Martin Harrison in Young Meteors: British Photojournalism: 1957-1965 (Jonathan Cape, 1998). Ray-Jones “did, however, help to shift the context of photography from the magazine page to the gallery wall.”
That shift, Martin Harrison explains, was evident in the institutional recognition of photography at the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, the growth in photo-galleries and the availability of grants and bursaries to photographers in the 1970s.
All of which helped the careers of a number of British documentary photographers (and one brilliant Czech photographer) – although none saw clearer the opportunities as they opened up than the Methodist minister’s grandson who’d spent his Saturdays bird watching with his father at Hersham Sewage Works.
SAVED BY 007
The problem for everyone else is that not enough has changed in the UK since those heady days of the mid 70s. The European art establishment embraced photography more than twenty years ago, and, as Tony Ray-Jones discovered, the Americans recognised photography long before that.
In an article in The Times published to coincide with the opening of Only in England and the launch of the Media Space in September 2013, Martin Parr complained that “British curators don’t get photography.” It was “unbelievable,” Parr said, that Tate Britain had never given a British photographer a one-person show. 5
And this is why we find ourselves thanking James Bond co-producer and photo enthusiast Michael Wilson who ‘Skyfalled,’ perhaps, the idea of a new photography gallery into the capital.
Costing £4.5 million, The Media Space is the London venue for the National Photography Collection held by the National Media Museum in Bradford. Consisting of over 3.5 million objects today, the collection was originally brought together in Yorkshire in 1983 as part of the drive to decentralise the arts in Britain.
It is now hoped that a programme of exhibitions and associated glitzy occasions in London will stimulate international interest and generate greater funding for the collection. Which, considering that the NMM narrowly survived closure on financial grounds in the summer of 2013, is important for the future success of the project.
The Media Space is situated on the Science Museum’s second floor and consists of a gallery, a studio space and a café with enough extra capacity for launches, talks and signings.
The uninitiated might benefit from an explanation of what ‘media’ really means. So a glass case, similar to those that describe the Making of the Modern World on the Science Museum’s ground floor would help inform.
The case could contain historical items of media technology – a teleprinter, a Speed Graphic press camera, a portable typewriter, a wirephoto machine, perhaps. And there should be some newspapers in the café.
THE MOONS OF SATURN
For Only in England the Media Space gallery is divided into three sections: first Tony Ray Jones’ original prints, then Martin Parr’s The Non-Conformists and finally Parr’s new discoveries from the Ray-Jones archive.
Although Parr’s discoveries might have benefited from a tighter edit, some, notably Portobello Road Market, 1966; Bethnal Green Road, 1966; Butlins, Clacton, 1967 and Location unknown, possibly Morcambe, 1967-68 are among Ray-Jones’ best work.
By revealing Ray-Jones’ working methods from his diaries, notes, cuttings and correspondence the exhibition reveals just how much research and thought is required before a great set of photographs can be produced. It is never just luck.
For Tony Ray-Jones the scientific approach of a character analysis of the English was the key that unlocked his artistic talent. It provided the structure within which he could develop his point of view and exploit his extraordinary understanding of framing and spatial relationships in the real world, an understanding that Alexey Brodovitch showed so elegantly on the magazine page.
“Anyone looking for history or sociology will perhaps be disappointed,” Gerry Badger pointed out in 1988. “But his fragmentary, elliptical, and intuitive, visually adroit meditations upon life and the moment both delight us and give food for thought, and that marks some kind of cogent commentary upon the English.”
“There is the sardonic humour, the gentle, yet insistent invitation to fantasy, and above all, there is poetry aplenty,” wrote Badger, who continues to be Martin Parr’s co-conspirator in the series The Photobook: A History.
Add to that the unexpected poetry from Parr and you get one of the more intriguing photographic exhibitions in London since Diane Arbus Revelations across the road at the V&A in 2005-6. Which, incidentally, was organised by Parr’s biographer, Sandra S. Phillips of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. To complete the symmetry it is worth remembering that Ray-Jones taught in San Francisco for a year and an exhibition of his work, Photographs of the English, was showing at the museum, then called the San Francisco Museum of Art, when he died.
Before you leave the Science Museum visit the Making of the Modern World on the ground floor. Here you can see yourself reflected in Herschel’s original mirror from his Forty Foot telescope with which he discovered Enceladus and Mimas, the sixth and seventh moons of Saturn in 1789.
As you look at the misty image in front of you consider these words by Tony Ray-Jones: “Photography can be a mirror and reflect life as it is. But I also think that perhaps it is possible to walk, like Alice, through a looking glass, and find another kind of world with the camera.”
In some hands the camera can be a mirror, objective, scientific. In others a scientific approach opens the gates to something special. “Want to see some snaps, Dave?” Ray-Jones once asked his college friend Dave Burch. Then, in Burch’s words, Tony “opened an unlikely yellow box and produced magic.”
Only in England is at the Media Space at the Science Museum in London until March 16th 2014. It then moves to the National Media Museum, Bradford where it runs from March 22nd to June 29th 2014.
NOTES on TONY RAY-JONES AND THE LYRICAL ORIGIN OF PARRWORLD
 Edvard Munch, the Norwegian expressionist artist who painted The Scream, wrote in his notes: “It was in 1895. I had an exhibition at Blomqvist in the autumn. There was a heated controversy about the pictures. There were calls to boycott the venue, the police [were summoned]. One day I met Ibsen down there. He walked over to me. I find it extremely interesting, he said. Believe me, you will have the same fate as I – the more enemies [you make] the more friends [you will acquire]. I had to walk beside him and he insisted on seeing every picture”: Edvard Munch’s Writings MM N 415. Ibsen and the Frieze of Life! Towards the light
 Following Brodovitch’s death in France in April 1971, The Philadelphia College of Art awarded him a posthumous degree and held an exhibition of his work. Writing in the exhibition catalogue Art Kane recalled: “One day at lunch, I asked Brodovitch what it was that inspired his approach to education. He told me to read a book by Krishnamurti called Education and the Significance of Life. It clued me in on his teaching, his thinking, and opened many doors for me. He taught me to be intolerant of mediocrity. He taught me to worship the unknown”: Alexy Brodovitch and His Influence
 Tony Ray-Jones, christened Holroyd Anthony Ray-Jones, would criticise other photographers for being ‘phoney baloney,’ however his own double-barreled surname was an affectation which his father, Raymond Jones, had adopted on the advice of his art tutors around 1911: Ray….Jones
 Before moving to Carlton House Terrace in 1968 the ICA held nineteen photographic exhibitions at its Dover Street premises – from Henri Cartier-Bresson: Photographs in 1952 to Three Banners of China photographed by Marc Riboud in 1967: ICA Exhibitions List 1948 – Present [PDF]
 ‘British curators don’t get photography. They think it’s a craft, not an art form’ was published in The Times on Wednesday September 18th 2013. Organised by Haus der Kunst, Munich and supported by the British Council, the exhibition Parrworld – “Planète Parr” in French – was a success in France, the Netherlands and Germany in 2008. The show never secured a London venue. Between 2009 and 2011 Parrworld found a home at the Baltic in Gateshead. Chris Killip trabajo / work is presently being celebrated for five months across eleven rooms at the Reina Sofia Muesum in the heart of Madrid, until February 24th 2014.
• Parr’s web: www.martinparr.com
• Parr video: The World According To Martin Parr (2003)
• Album: Tony Ray-Jones had the cover and seventeen pages in Issue 3 of Bill Jay’s Album magazine, published in April 1970. There was no accompanying text: Album 3 [PDF]
• Manplan: Justine Sambrook, curator of photographs and periodicals at RIBA, looks at the work of Tony Ray-Jones for the Architectural Review’s short-lived Manplan series: Focus on: Tony Ray-Jones
• A sense of time and place: “Peter Turner of Creative Camera remembers how Tony looked with admiration at a copy of Minotaure, the Surrealist art magazine of the ‘thirties. While he particularly admired the layout, it was not only that, it was the atmosphere – the atmosphere to be found in the photographs of Brassaï and Kertész – that somehow expressed the essence of the time. ‘This is what we’ve got to get going now’ was his opinion. But it is also the reason that his pictures will last. For they, too, magically preserve the essence of his own time”: Tony Ray-Jones: A Day Off: An English Journal (1974)
• The Non-Conformists – Martin Parr (Aperture, 2013)
• Martin Parr – Sandra S. Phillips (Phaidon, 2013 55s edition)
• The Last Resort – Martin Parr (Dewi Lewis, 2013 edition)
• Tony Ray-Jones – Richard Ehrlich (Cornerhouse, 1990)
• A Day Off – Tony Ray-Jones (Thames & Hudson, 1974)