Friday, 22 November 2013

Only in England Martin Parr and Tony Ray-Jones Science Museum 2013

Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr
21 September 2013 - 16 March 2014

Fascinated by the eccentricities of English social customs, Tony Ray-Jones spent the latter half of the 1960s travelling across England, photographing what he saw as a disappearing way of life. Humorous yet melancholy, these works had a profound influence on photographer Martin Parr, who has now made a new selection including over 50 previously unseen works from the National Media Museum's Ray-Jones archive. Shown alongside The Non-Conformists, Parr's rarely seen work from the 1970s, this selection forms a major new exhibition which demonstrates the close relationships between the work of these two important photographers.

Tuesday 19 November 2013, 19.45–21.15
IMAX Theatre

Martin Parr reflects on the profound influence Tony Ray-Jones’s practice has had on his work and their shared interest in documenting English social ritual and behaviour, with Kate Fox, social anthropologist and author of Watching the English, and Sean O’Hagan, writer on art, culture and photography for the Guardian and Observer.

Just recently I went along to the Only in England exhibition and this week attended the Martin Parr talk about the same. I decided in advance to combine both experiences within the same blog post.

Firstly the gallery space; it seems to be the "in thing" for London Museums to have photographic exhibitions, first the Natural History Museum and now the Science Museum, with its new Media Space. I guess this shows the growth in the popularity of photography and how financially lucrative it must be for these venues to run them. Although it seemed a bit weird to be jaunting off to the Science Museum the gallery was rather impressive. Apparently the 525 square metres of space make it "one of the biggest venues for photography in Britain" with the huge space cleverly divided by wooden framed walls running down the centre; a bit maze like but it does make for more wall space and was beautifully illuminated.

Photography: Kate Elliott
Photography: Kate Elliott

The exhibition itself is split into three distinctive areas, the first comprised of 60 prints from the archive of Tony Ray-Jones, secondly the early black-and-white work of Martin Parr, and lastly previously 56 unseen pictures from the archive of Ray-Jones, selected by Parr from contact sheets and negatives. It was brilliant to see these contact sheets on display and from them have an insight as to how he worked; snapping a subject then moving around to improve the composition, or waiting for the scene to develop waiting for more people to fill a space.  Apparently Ray-Jones’s preferred technique was to carry two cameras- Leica rangefinders, one @ 35mm lens and the other @ 50mm. One he would hold at eye level, pointing it at something in the distance, this meant that the chosen subject would either ignore him completely or turn to look at what he was pretending to photograph. The other he would hold at waist level, that would actually take the photo.

Parr commented on the spatial look and feel of his images, how different subjects would be looking in different directions;no-one really over lapped, this became more apparent as he went through the archive of negatives. It seems really masterful that such spontaneity resulted in the amazing compositions he captured; pictures that look busy, alive with activity and motion, and full of smaller details. I especially noted the way he grouped people together who are clearly unaware of each another at the moment the shutter clicked.Still, moving, blank-faced, excited, young, old, the whole gamut in one image. This is something I will look out for when shooting my event for assignment 5. Although not sure how successful I'll be I can but try!

It was reassuring to see the odd white or black square in his contact sheets where he hadn't quite gauged the exposure! Also dotted around were notebooks, layouts, letters and lists – in vitrines and on the walls.

Another piece of ephemera that I found fascinating was a cardboard shape of a bear he had used when employing dodge and burn on an image, copies of before and after shots and notes saying where and how he would apply it.

For those of you who are new to Tony Ray-Jones a brief biography would run something like :

His father died when he was only eight months old and after his father's death, Tony's mother took the family to Tonbridge in Kent, then and finally Hampstead in London. He was educated at Christ's Hospital (Horsham), which apparently he hated. Ray-Jones studied at the London School of Printing, where he concentrated on graphic design then in the early 1960s he obtained a scholarship that enabled him to join Yale University School of Art. In 1963 he was given assignments for the magazines Car and Driver and Saturday Evening Post.

Ray-Jones went to the Design Lab held by the art director Alexey Brodovitch in the Manhattan studio of Richard Avedon. There he got to know a number of New York "street photographers", in particular Joel Meyerowitz, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander who all influenced his later work. Snippet from the talk was that Joel Meyerowitz would often complain about his personal hygiene and make him shower when they worked in his studio!

Ray-Jones graduated from Yale in 1964 and photographed the United States until his return to Britain in late 1965.On his arrival the idea of a survey of the English at leisure gradually took shape, he wanted to document the way of life of the English "before it became too Americanised". His photographs of festivals and leisure activities are full of a surreal humour, influenced by photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Homer Sykes and Sir Benjamin Stone. Part of this work was published posthumously in his book A Day Off (1974). There is a short video within the exhibition where Parr explains how some of the captions are wrong and they now know that certain places were not where they originally thought!

Described as eccentric and abrasive he once said to Peter Turner, the editor of Creative Camera, "Your magazine's shit".  He returned to the United States in January 1971 to work as a teacher but he disliked teaching, saying that the students were "self-centred and lazy." In late 1971, Ray-Jones suffering from exhaustion eventually sought advice, leukaemia was diagnosed, and he started chemotherapy. Medical treatment in the US was too expensive, so Ray-Jones flew to London on 10 March, was immediately admitted to the Royal Marsden Hospital where he sadly died on 13 March aged 31.

Back to the exhibition...

At a time of social change, Ray-Jones was determined to record anything that he saw as being particularly (or peculiarly) English before it disappeared forever. The street and the seaside were his main targets although he also captured the rituals of Eton boarding school and the Glyndebourne opera festival, as well as beauty contests and pop festivals. Kate Fox described both Ray-Jones and Parr as "social anthropologists with a camera" and Sean O'Hagan introduced both Ray-Jones and Parr as "capturing the spirit and mentality" of the English. Martin Parr commented while looking at TRJ's work that he was surprised by how English the English still are and how it is still possible to make work that can still be regarded as "terribly English." Ms Fox echoed this sentiment and said she can still see the English "tribe" today within the archival photographs.

It is wonderful how Ray-Jones managed to capture fine details in larger scenes, had the ability to snap the ordinary and make it interesting, the patience to stand and wait for something entertaining or quirky to occur and the skill to get close enough to a subject without them posing. His images have been described as "slices of life as seen through the lens."

Walking around the exhibition was appealing on many levels, as a slice of English history, of personal nostalgia and as a photographer seeing how he worked with and composed his images. Looking around taking notes I noticed a young man doing the same, obviously a student. I had to stop and ask him was he getting the same information/feelings from the images as me although we were from a different generation. I could remember things from my childhood in the 60's and 70's that struck chords. He said although he had no direct memories he could see things on the wall that were in his family albums at home and coming from the North the Blackpool shots and many of Martin Parr's early images were resonating.

Neither TRJ nor Parr (especially latterly) shied away from capturing the quirky or seediness of our seaside towns or events. His images of the festivals and people sitting on the marquees certainly show how Health and Safety has moved on!

Tony Ray-Jones Beauty Contest Southport, 1967

Tony Ray-Jones Blackpool, 1967

Tony Ray-Jones Glyndebourne, 1967

You then moved onto the work of Martin Parr. I have never really been a fan of his so it was enlightening to see his series, The Non-Conformists, made in and around Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire in 1975, just after he graduated from art school. The title comes from the Methodist and Baptist churches that dotted the region.

Parr gave his main influences as his grandfather initially, then Lee Friedlander and Robert Frank, he was also inspired by a talk given by Bill Jay who showed the work of Tony Ray-Jones while he was still at college.

The influence of Ray-Jones is really quite apparent in this early body of work although definitely not a direct imitation, Parr had his own perception of the world and photographer's "voice". His work also looks more considered and less spontaneous. One thing I must comment on about both bodies of work is how grainy they both were...I am always surprised by this but I guess it was part of the fashion at the time and part of the ethos that serious documentary was grainy black and white! Parr mentions again the use of gaps between the people being as important as the people themselves.

It was interesting to hear Parr say that to enable this body of work to be produced he immersed himself into the lifestyle of the people and became very involved with the community but realised that this in some ways was a mistake; some of  the elders of the village mistook his professional interest as a personal interest and expected him to stay and take over certain projects.

I have to admit to not being a huge fan of Parr, due in part to his use of flash and garish colour saturation in some of his imagery. I don't know an awful lot about his work so need to look at more before I can state outright "I don't like Parr." Some of his observations are spot on and is it his fault that capturing real life makes people look weird? We aren't all air brushed, we don't all live in ivory towers or holiday in exotic climes. This is what he shows, raw England. It was very telling however, that this first body of work is missing the undertone of mocking cynicism seen within The Last Resort. Instead The Non-Conformists portrays the community with sympathy, empathy and affection even whilst capturing the surreal humour of some of the situations. I enjoyed this body of work so much that I bought the book and queued up to get it signed by the man himself.

from the Non Conformists Martin Parr

from the Non Conformists Martin Parr

The final gallery returns to Tony Ray-Jones and the selection carefully chosen by Parr, a tricky enough job choosing your own first selects let alone deciding for someone else. Parr acknowledged that there’s no way of knowing if Ray-Jones would have ultimately approved. Here all the background information and notes really come to the fore and help us understand  the working methods and motives behind the photographer.

An exhibition I would strongly recommend.

Moving onto the talk I have lots of quick jottings, comments made by both Kate Fox and Martin Parr, chaired by Sean O'Hagan. A very entertaining evening although not possibly for all the right reasons...I went along with a former tutor and two others who were his former students. We have all kept in contact and are good friends so was a chance to catch up and giggle at certain aspects that we really should have known better about! That aside, several pertinent comments were made during the evening; once we had established that Martin Parr had previously been a train spotter and Kate Fox, as a baby, had been strapped into an Indian cradleboard and propped up around the house by her father (get the impression the conversation strayed all over the place??).

Things like:

  • We are not a classless society.
  • Parr has discovered the joy of shooting films; whilst listening to the banter between people he realised he couldn't capture that, so in some ways a photograph cannot tell the whole story.
  • He was also inspired by Tony Hancock who succinctly caught and gently mocked the pomposity of the English and this was what he tried to do with his later bodies of work.
  • He saw similarities between himself and TRJ in the respect that both had lived outside of the UK for a while and on returning saw familiar things from a different point of view.
  • As a nation we endorse the stereotype, are attracted to clichés, that although we may sometimes buck against a stereotype they are truisms, used as a starting point and given a twist.
  • The French like Parr more than we do, they like to laugh at us! Also they like photography more.
  • Due to the brashness of the modern world the only way to capture it meant it had to be in colour.
  • Try to use the whole frame for the story, not just the main subject in the middle.
  • Documentary photographers actually are no good at capturing the everyday as they want nostalgia and the quirky. Something Parr admits to doing himself in the past.
He was quite disparaging about photography students relying on clichés and that he had a list of these on his blog, again admitting to using some of these himself and actually responding to imgery containing them. However he warns against adhering too closely to what is familiar as it can be "as restricting as it can be liberating."

Then followed the typical question and answer session which I found to be a little on the predictable side with people asking stuff they could probably have found the answers to by googling them! Why, when you have the man himself in front of you ask boring questions?

My friend Natalie asked how could students be bolder and try different things when at the moment there is a problem with accessing sites due to more and more restrictions, or the general public not liking their photo taken. Did he think that the clichés he was seeing was due to the problems of access? (The irony being in a world where more n more technology exists and more and more images being taken in some ways it is harder to achieve) His response? "No-one said it would be easy. Try Harder. Get out of London." Hmmm I had to laugh, when you hold down a full time job, have a family, and your photography doesn't pay its not that simple. Hey, I guess no-one said it would be easy. When Natalie bought a copy of The Last Resort she asked for the dedication to read "You must try harder!"

Hmmmmm I wonder how hard his daughter had to work to get him to agree to this I totally acknowledge that it was her hard work that has enabled her to pursue her career nor is she a student but would the public in general have such access to Mr Parr? How many photography students would have been able to give away full sets of postcards or have Mr Parr attend their event? Am I being too cynical?

Martin Parr in conversation with Kate Fox and Sean O'Hagan. Photograph Michael Wayne Plant

Microphone in hand I asked him about the funeral selfies, I had read the story a while ago and then saw it had been picked up in a weareoca blog post.

I was interested to discover if he found them disrespectful because I didn't? Although you had to wonder at the motives behind some of the more scantily clad young ladies talking about their sadness over departed grandad, I could fully empathise with the grinning young man who reported that if she was seeing his image "gran would have been grinning away" to know he was having fun and with her sense of humour she would have loved it. My mum had been the same. She didn't want sadness or people dressing in black at her funeral, we had fun, bright colours, non conventional music and pictures uploaded to facebook prompted queries from people as to "that looks fun were you at a party" errrrm no it was my mum's funeral....

Martin Parr thought along similar lines, he thought it was more our own straightlaced moral upbringing that made us feel it was wrong to photograph at funerals (if you're wondering I have shots of her coffin and the vegetables...yes vegetables...placed in a basket on top) He had in fact had the suggestion of a body of work along those lines rapidly dismissed when he had put it forward. I find it quite strange that we have no worries when pointing a camera at dignitaries and onlookers at state funerals but baulk at the thought of doing it closer to home? I am not suggesting photobombing or intruding upon a stranger's intimate moment but that's what the press do on a regular basis so why the issue when people do it on a personal level? Maybe this is my own eccentricity revealing itself lololol.

There the evening ended with the book signing and the train journey home....

Martin Parr book signing Natalies book, photography Michael Wayne Plant.
Thanks to Michael for sending the images, cropped out Natalie as she hates her photo being taken. Typical photographer who likes to be behind the camera not in front!


  1. Very interesting. I've been meaning to get to this and I am even keener now. It was interesting to look again at the list of cliches and recognise myself, and a few other OCA students. There are few new subjects but I think he is right about needing always to think about subject-matter and trying harder in general. Thanks for this Jan!

  2. A fascinating read and good coverage; enjoyed reading it and have added a link to the TR-J collection on my website: - hope that's ok!
    By the way, the video links no longer work...

  3. Thanks for the comment Roy and your links...I'll check out the broken links.....:o)