Tony Ray-Jones 1941-1972
The latter half of the twentieth century witnessed a diversification of ideas surrounding documentary photography, as notions of objectivity were debated and the boundaries between 'documentary' and 'art' became increasingly blurred. The traditional intention to produce socially concerned images shifted towards a preoccupation with the subjectivity and personal vision of the photographer. Many photographers sought to interpret the human experience rather than record it; the publication of Robert Frank's The Americans (1959) inspired a new generation of street photographers including Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand. In the early 1960s, Tony Ray-Jones found himself at the forefront of this imaginative and stimulating period of American photography. The five years Ray-Jones spent in the United States were essential to his artistic development, specifically his interaction with other students at Alexey Brodovitch's Design Laboratory. He befriended Joel Meyerowitz and together they roamed the streets of New York, photographing parades or people in Times Square. Ray-Jones' first photographic project chronicled the lives of black Americans living in New Haven; the black and white images employ a straightforward approach and show exceptional formal organization. Writing on Ray-Jones' first major retrospective in 2004, Liz Tobey observes:
had been a search: for a style, for a subject, for a means of self-expression that went beyond the neatly crafted magazine photograph. His most successful pictures have this strong, multilayered architecture, built up by the passage of people and events within the frame. There is a tension between control and the lack of it; between the structure of the picture and the chance encounters that undermine it.
In 1966, Ray-Jones returned to England with a fresh awareness of how to capture the idiosyncrasies of the human subject, as well as the determination to promote photography as an art form. At the time photography was still considered a 'trade' profession in Britain and Ray-Jones has been credited with mobilizing the next generation of photographers of the 1970s, the Creative Camera bunch (2). This influential publication, initially edited by Bill Jay, began in 1968 and helped elevate the status of photography; producing thought-provoking essays on the medium and highlighting the portfolios of emerging artists. The late sixties and the seventies witnessed a considerable repositioning of photography as documentary photographs began to be exhibited as 'art' in museums and galleries: Bill Brandt's work was exhibited at the Hayward Gallery whilst the Victoria and Albert Museum presented a solo show of Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Sue Davies set up The Photographer's Gallery in 1971.
Ray-Jones strived to document the eccentricities of ordinary Britons- the last photographic survey to do so had been Bill Brandt's The English at Home in 1936. David Alan Mellor points out: Ray-Jones' strengths, to his contemporaries, seemed to lie in a disjunctive, comic conservation of remnants of a former social tradition which was now under threat of modernization.(3) Ray-Jones was naturally curious about British customs and practices, which allowed him to capture his subjects in a warm and sympathetic manner. Although his technique in exposure and development was poor, he was a perfectionist and wrote itemized lists and ideas for various creative projects- these notebooks can be viewed at the National Media Museum in Bradford. Ray-Jones has repeatedly cited Brandt as a major influence on his work, as well as Brassai and the filmmakers Fellini, Jacques Tati, Jean Vigo, Bunuel and the Marx Brothers (4). Ian Walker examines the influence of surrealism on Ray-Jones: Like Brandt, (he) was more interested in making pictures than recording facts and there is a persistent desire, not to understand the scene he is recording, but rather to render its strangeness. (5)
This visual documentation of the English at leisure, taken between the years of 1966 and 1968, is the defining project of Ray-Jones' artistic career. A book examining the quirkiness of the British, The Country Life Book of Old English Customs, prompted the project, and Ray-Jones travelled across the country in his VW camper van, collecting postcards of the English seaside (6). He used a manual Leica M camera and black-and-white film, often shooting from eye level with a wide-angle lens. Some of these images were published alongside a thousand-word text in the October 1968 issue of Creative Camera; editor Bill Jay found Ray-Jones' influence quite significant during their short-lived collaboration. Much of Ray-Jones' work contains a theatrical element; subjects often appear as actors in elaborately staged tableaux- participants in a poignant and at times bizarre social drama.(7) He was known for his enthusiasm and a stubborn commitment to the integrity of his work, often leading to clashes with magazine editors in his commercial projects. He was denied membership in Magnum on two separate occasions; the second attempt after a poorly received submission of his photographic project on housing for the October 1970 issue of MANPLAN, an architectural review publication. In 1968 he tried to publish a book of the series in New York, titled England by the Sea, but failed to attract enough interest. The series was included in a 1969 exhibition at the Institute for Creative Arts in London, and was published posthumously in 1974 under the title, A day off: an English Journal by Tony Ray-Jones. Having both an insider and outsider perspective, Ray-Jones successfully executed his goal of producing a visual character analysis of his fellow countryman. In the introduction to the 1974 book, Ainslie Ellis writes: He documented in an unaffected and straightforward manner the often unconscious humour of the English talent for playing life so seriously in its lighter moments. He caught the fun, the pathos, and the irony of England right through the stratification of social differences.(8) Tony Ray-Jones shall be remembered for his passionate commitment to his craft and an important influence to the subsequent generation of British documentary photographers.
1. Liz Tobey. The English Seen: Tony Ray-Jones. The Guardian, October 2, 2004, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2004/oct/02/photography.art (accessed August 16, 2012).
2. Gerry Badger and John Benton-Harris. Through the Looking Glass: Photographic Art in Britain 1945-1989 (London: Lund Humphries Pub Ltd, 1989) published in conjunction with the exhibition Through the Looking Glass: Photographic Art in Britain 1945-1989 shown at the Barbican Arts Centre in London, 29
3. David Alan Mellor. Living Briefly in an Old Country: Tony Ray-Jones, 1966-70, Visual Culture in Britain 9, no.2 (Winter 2008): 62.
4. Peter Turner. Tony Ray-Jones. Creative Camera (July 1988).
5. Ian Walker. So exotic, so homemade: Surrealism, Englishness and documentary photography (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 168.
6. Peter Marshall. Tony Ray-Jones. From a talk given at FotoArtFestival, Bielsko-Biala, Poland, June 2005, http://www.weepingash.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=109:peter-marshall-essay&catid=37:trj&Itemid=11 (accessed August 21, 2012).
7. Russell Roberts. Tony Ray-Jones (London: Chris Boot, 2005), 16.
8. Ainslie Ellis, ed. A day off: an English Journal by Tony Ray-Jones (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974), 14.
British Photography / The Hyman Collection