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

foyer entry to the Science Museum

foyer entry to the Science Museum

This was an exhibition I had earmarked and expected to see in Bradford yet in the end, needed to make time to see before it closed in London. The Science Museum seems an unusual place to visit such an exhibition that has no apparent scientific connection other than the camera being a mechanical device; the museum however have opened their own media space which is directly connected to the National Media Museum in Bradford so perhaps Londoners might see more of their colllections on show in London.

I am familiar with the work of Martin Parr, one of the first photographers I came into contact with almost 25 years ago now; he was not so well known then and had just been accepted as an associate of Magnum after some severe opposition. Tony Ray-Jones is quite new to me although I have heard his name before and am familiar with his iconic photograph, Glyndebourne 1967, of a couple enjoying a lavish picnic while cows loom in the background.

Before this exhibition, I bought a copy of Parr’s The Non-Conformists which shows early black and white work. There is a satirical eye here, the two elderly women asleep in a Methodist church, their bodies conterbalancing each other, is one example; this trait Parr was to develop into a more sophisticated sense of irony in his later work often troubling some by its directness.

Tony Ray-Jones who developed his talents in the New York photography scene,, set out to capture ‘the English attachment to tradition and custom at a time he felt England was losing its cultural identity because of enroaching “Americanisation”.’

The eccentricity of English life at that time is something that Ray-Jones has captured making the viewing of his photographs an enjoyable experience. Yet there is a melancholic feel to them as one reflects that this is a time that has passed and although such habits and customs do continue, they do so in a more banal and self-conscious way. The prints on show here were made by Tony Ray-Jones and I wonder what they might look like if the negatives, assuming they have survived, were scanned and printed digitally.

It is interesting to see Ray-Jones’ notes which reveal planning not just the work he wanted to undertake but how his life might pan out at that time. The fact he died a few years later adds a tragic note to the inherent melancholy of times past.

Inside the Only in England exhibition

Inside the Only in England exhibition

Parr’s exhibited work although emulating similar subject matter to Ray-Jones is not so wide in scope; he has focused on a single community and represented it in depth. The humour is questionable though; are we being asked to laugh at these people and their way of life? For instance, the photograph entitled “Congregation making their way to the Grimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel Anniversary Service, 1975” shows a line of women walking alongside each other as a large cow looks over a wall in their direction; the common insult of referring to women as cows which was prevalent at this time can not be easily ignored. Yet the photographer is not affirming this analogy rather he is drawing attention to it.

There is a booth that runs a short movie by Nick Street called Only in England. This shows Martin Parr discussing his own work and that of an early influence, Tony Ray-Jones who photographed English social life as theatre, something that he had leant while part of the Brodovitch group in New York. The seaside town was a favoutire subject of Ray-Jones and in some places still survives much as it did fourty years ago. “Spatial” is a word that Parr uses to describe a quality of Ray-Jones’ work that he feels he has mirrored. “Ray-Jones sought to distance his subjects from each other in the frame, while creating balance and harmony within the photograph. Pushing the subjects, or their attention, to the edges, yet including a detail that draws our attention back into the photograph is a rare skill; one which Parr suggests Ray-Jones may not have recognised himself.”

In the third section, one sees work by Ray-Jones that has been printed up by Martin Parr who has made his own selection from some 2500 contacts. Some things never change such as the habit of carrying flowers away from The Chelsea Flower Show seen here in 1967 and seen every year on BBC TV.

view of Exhibition Road from the Science Museum

view of Exhibition Road from the Science Museum

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