Canterbury’s latest photographic exhibition ‘Only in England’ features the work of iconic photographers Tony Ray-Jones (1941–1972) and Martin Parr. The exhibition aims to draw comparisons between the two artists, exploring how their fascination with ‘Britishness’ influenced their image-making.
UCA Photography Student GEORGETTE TAYLOR reviews
Ray-Jones began photographing England and its inhabitants in the 1960s, creating a body of work reminiscent of documentary photography, but with a strong sense of narrative. The exhibition holds close to 100 images by Ray-Jones in which he explored England through the lives of the ordinary, freeze-framing their activities for all to see.
Martin Parr’s series, ‘The Non-Conformists’, also features in the exhibition. Parr’s series was inspired by Ray-Jones after the two met before the latter’s untimely death. Parr also photographed England, turning his camera to Hebden Bridge in the mid-70s, capturing the everyday life of its residents.
Before we even reach the main gallery we are met by an unassuming glass case, which, upon closer inspection, houses documents and notes detailing the life of Tony Ray-Jones. On display are examples of the photographer’s film development process, as well as a newspaper headline from the day he died. The most telling and intriguing documents however, are handwritten notes from Ray-Jones himself. From these scraps of paper it is revealed that Ray-Jones may have indeed been his own worst critic, with personal reminders always to strive for what he considered the ‘perfect’ image. Ultimately, housed in this glass case is evidence of the intensity of Ray-Jones’ practice and how fully he was invested in the medium of photography.
Entering the main gallery it is clear that the exhibition layout has been carefully considered in order to highlight the relationship between Ray-Jones and Parr. All four walls are dedicated to the photographs of Ray-Jones, with Parr’s work displayed in the middle of the room on a singular standalone surface. Parr’s work has been surrounded by that of Ray-Jones, bringing attention to the fact that the former has taken inspiration from the latter. Encompassing Parr’s images like this is a clever way of stating the relationship between the two photographers in a physical way for all to see. Separate, but still together.
This connection can be seen again further into the exhibition, as we are greeted with a selection of previously unseen works from the Ray-Jones collection, personally selected by Parr. It is the perfect way to capture an interaction between the two, even if it is one sided. Parr has been permitted to search through the catalogue of images made by a photographer who has arguably influenced his own practice. We are exposed to new images from Ray-Jones, but more importantly we have a glimpse into the mind of Parr, through the images he has chosen. More than anything, this underlines the influence Ray-Jones has had on his contemporary.
Exploring the photographs, it is apparent that Ray-Jones was a master of the chance encounter. His photographs reveal candid moments in time, captured in a present that would soon become the past. Ray-Jones photographed all walks of life, from the middle class to the working class, from beach scenes to city streets across England. The result is a collection of intimate, curious and sometimes mundane moments between people and their British backdrop.
The main question Ray-Jones’ photographs raise, is ‘who?’ Who are these people captured for all eternity in black and white film? What are they thinking about in that very moment? What circumstances brought them to be there just as Ray-Jones released the shutter? Although Ray-Jones was very controlled in his image-making, his hand written notes and compositions lending proof to this, the viewer is able to let their imagination run wild and create their own scenarios and narratives from the black and white stills. Ray-Jones’ photographs, although taken in his present, now serve as a piece of history.
Parr’s displayed photographs are from his early series ‘The Non-Conformists’, showing life in Hebden Bridge. Parr’s main focus is the working class and poverty. A range of emotions are evoked in his work, from the happiness exuding from a candid wedding shot to the accusation felt in an image of lunching middle class women juxtaposed with a depiction of the last supper. Whereas Ray-Jones seems to be commenting on the variety of life across England, Parr’s narrative feels more political, as if he is making a statement both about the poverty he has witnessed and a perceived decline in the traditional country life.
The main difference between his work and that of Ray-Jones is the composition. It feels as if Parr is closer to his subject, and that they are surely aware of his presence. His images have a more intimate feel, however the lack of eye contact from the subjects helps to maintain some level of distance. As a viewer we are there, with them in the moment, but also separated by the perceived barrier.
If anything, ‘Only in England’ highlights how two different photographer have transformed the mundane across England into something wondrous and engaging. Both Ray-Jones and Parr provide a portal back in time allowing visitors to witness the history of England first hand. Every aspect of life is seized upon, showing everyday life as both banal and bizarre.
At the exhibition’s exit is a second glass case with more documents about Ray-Jones, among them a list in which the late photographer notes the characteristics and qualities of the British. He cites a ‘love of tradition’, the ‘art of compromise and muddling through’ and ‘privacy’ as particular British traits, but perhaps the most telling of all is a bullet point which reads ‘uneventful’. The irony is not lost, especially in a room full of busy photographs showing several different lives in each scene. Ray-Jones sums up ‘Only in England’ best in a final comment: ‘A country lacking in drama and yet the people have a fine sense of drama’.
Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr is on display in the Special Exhibitions Room at The Beaney House of Art & Knowledge, 18 High Street, Canterbury CT1 2RA from 9 July to 25 September 2016. Admission: Pay What You Can.
Featured image: Beauty contestants, Southport, Merseyside, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones