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

3rd March 2014

Four of us from the OCA Thames Valley Group met on Saturday 1st March to view the exhibition ‘Only in England by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr’.  Whilst waiting in the main foyer to the museum I was amazed at the vast numbers of people who flooded through the doors.  I new the place was popular but still, the numbers were staggering and a couple of us wondered how on earth they were all accommodated, most especially the numbers of children; everyone but us seemed to have at least two in tow.  Luckily they weren’t going to the exhibition we were, although there were far more people in the gallery than I’d honestly expected, which just goes to show that either Ray-Jones was better known than I’d thought, Parr’s name had attracted a lot of people, or word had gotten around about just how good the exhibition was.  There wasn’t the numbers to prevent anyone from seeing any image they needed to up-close-and-personal, like there sometimes can be at say the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, but on odd occasions there were two or three people around some of the exhibits simultaneously, and with so many prints to look at the visitor numbers were able to spread out but still be a lot.

The first hall was dedicated to Ray-Jones and has 61 prints from the 1960’s, black-and-white of course and surprisingly more than a few of them seemed to have been made from dirty negatives as they had dust, hair and lint marks in the emulsion, shame, but one could argue that it added to the authenticity of their age, but poor conservation.  What wasn’t detracted from though was the mastery Ray-Jones had of making images of numbers of strangers without them looking at him and with several plots, or sub-plots, taking place in those scenes.  Even where he only has a couple in the frame, as in the two ballroom dancers  under a spotlight with an organist in the background also spotlit, here is a hint of others within the area and other activities taking place.

The era these images came from were my formative years and one of the seaside towns Ray-Jones tackled, Scarborough, was the annual retreat of my family.  From the age of five or six to my mid-teens, mum, dad, me and my siblings in various quantities would spend our annual fortnight of ‘Engineers Weeks’ enjoying, what I thought then as, the ultimate in holiday destination, the days before package holidays to Benidorm and Rimini, when summer holidays were always warm, on the sand and in the sea, catching sand-eels and making sand castles, bingo and slot machines, and importantly, free of rain.  Donkey rides, Punch & Judy, a booze trip on the Yorkshire Lady or Caronia beyond the three-mile limit, walks around the castle, swimming in the North Bay pool and afternoon tea at the South Bay Lido.  Up the lighthouse, Peasholme Park boating, naval warfare re-enactment, fireworks, the band and miniature railway.  Evenings spent at Mrs Mayman’s house ( the landlady), whilst mum and dad went to the Winter Gardens for a show.

It would seem though that my reminiscences weren’t the same as Ray-Jones, who was eight years older than me.  He brings what I called a coldness to the views, but as someone else pointed out, perhaps not coldness, but a certain bleakness.  The sun doesn’t seem to shine, there’s rain, the wind blows too strongly and the shadows and dark areas of his images are made darker by his ideas of developing and printing more darkly than one would expect.  But even though they weren’t as light as I would have preferred, his technique was his and his look was all his, together with his ability to catch the decisive Ray-Jones moment, thy are certainly images that are a powerful stimulus to anyone aspiring to make documentary images of any group of people.

Moving from the first hall to the next, where the early years of Parr are exhibited, wasn’t the sudden change one might expect if you are familiar with Parr’s later works.  Here there are about 50 of his earliest works after he left college and surprisingly all black-and-white and clearly influenced by Ray-Jones’s style.  Parr can be forgiven for making work in Ray-Jones’s style as I’m sure he would influence anyone who was an aspiring documentary photographer of that time, which he should still do today if my reaction is anything to go by. The difference between the two photographers though was that whilst Parr was clearly influenced by Ray-Jones, he also wanted to perhaps bring something of himself to his work as well, but I feel that they are stiff and stilted by comparison.  Parr spent this period in and around Todmorden, West Yorkshire, not very far from my home at the time.  Indeed there are some images from Elland and Halifax which clearly reminded me of the places I used to walk to every day for work and the chapel communities of the area were a grim lot as I remember, just as portrayed in Parr’s images.  It’s interesting to note that whilst a great deal of the architecture shown in all his images is still present, it now appears much less ‘satanic mills’ than it did then, but there’s also a lot of the close-knit community gone along with that.

The last hall is once again dedicated to Ray-Jones where Parr himself selected the images from all the contact sheets and negative strips that Ray-Jones left.  He apparently selected hitherto unknown and unshown pictures that he himself printed in the same style as Ray-Jones and shows a different aspect of Ray-Jones’s nature, possibly a more lighthearted side or maybe whimsical in a dour Yorkshire type way.

There’s much ephemera interspaced with all the images and it’s a real treat to read the working notes and shooting diaries of a truly gifted photographer.  Whilst he doesn’t provide any instant revelations that will make the reader a master like he was, it does provide the knowledge that nothing he did was spur of the moment, everything was pre-planned.  He knew what he wanted to shoot, where to shoot it and made endless lists of everything he wanted to achieve when on the job.  I certainly had it brought home to me that if I want to make a success of any project I can’t simply think about it, then go out and do it, I need to research who, where, what why and make sure that the timing is right and resourced properly.

A really well spent £5-00 for that visit, may Ray-Jones inspire for a long time to come.

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