Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr. Walker Art Gallery Liverpool, 13 February to 7 June 2015.
Only in England, the Walker’s current large scale exhibition of photographs revisits meditations on English social rituals by Tony Ray-Jones (1941-72) and Martin Parr (1952- ). The photographs of leisure pursuits by the former date from the period 1966-69, while those from the latter, examining the decline of rural traditions in Yorkshire’s Calder Valley, date from 1975-80.
This is a natural pairing of these English photographers given their central concerns with ‘Englishness’. The affinity is more than mere subject matter however, Parr cites Ray-Jones as his biggest influence. While Ray-Jones’s life was tragically cut short in 1972 (by leukaemia at age 30), Parr has remained an influential figure internationally since the late 1970s.
Made up entirely of black and white images this exhibition occupies three large rooms. Two rooms are devoted to Ray-Jones’s images. The first of these features sixty-one vintage silver gelatin prints and the second fifty-three ‘pigment prints’. The photographs in the second room of Ray-Jones images were selected by Martin Parr from the 2700 contact sheets – over 81000 individual images – in the Ray-Jones archives at the National Media Museum Bradford. Between these two, is a room devoted to forty-nine pigment prints from Parr’s own late-1970s series The Non-Conformists.
Upon entering the first room, we are presented with a wonderful selection of vintage silver gelatin prints from the body of work Tony Ray-Jones compiled following his return from America in 1965. He had been at Yale University School of Art on a scholarship and working for magazines in the US. The images here are relatively small – compared to the other two rooms – measuring approximately 6×8 inches and some larger at approximately 8x12inches.
Travelling with his wife Anna in their VW camper van between 1966-69, Ray-Jones visited southern coastal resorts including Eastbourne, Bournemouth, Brighton, Newquay, Ramsgate and Broadstairs to document holiday makers. We see in these images some of his characteristics of Englishness according to Ray-Jones’s vision: stoicism, dissociation, boredom, alienation, melancholy, the bizarre and the surreal in scenes of everyday life. His recurring motif’s of Englishness are tea drinking, a love of dogs, and plenty of clothes as protection against the trying weather. The same motifs anchor many of Parr’s photographs on display here.
In the image Boarding House Newquay, 1968 for instance, he shows the windows of two buildings at right angles but on opposite sides of a road. In one window we see a solitary male looking over his shoulder to the outside, in the other a female alone. Their solitude suggests not just separateness but isolation and loneliness. The curved shape of the street lamp, illuminating this night scene, seems to signal the presence of the voyeuristic photographer observing this Hopper-esque scene. It is hard not to speculate that Ray-Jones was commenting on the irony of their parallel loneliness.
In another typical Ray-Jones image titled Bournemouth, 1969, we see six adults in four groups. One of a pair of older men is watching the photographer rather than paying attention to the man talking to him. A women on the right looks thoroughly bored and detached from her companion. Between these are a single male and female separated by a screen. The empty deck chair beside the women suggests the man sunbathing out front is her partner.
We can see here their dissociation even as they enact the holiday ritual. Despite getting away together, presumably to share their free time, several appear bored and detached. This theme of ritualistic behaviour, of going through the motions when things are not quite as they should be, pervades many of the photographs on display.
This body of work signals the decline of these activities as tired traditions, archaic rituals no longer meeting their intended recreational purpose. This is what motivated Ray-Jones to undertake this work. He was aware of the decline and inevitable disappearance of traditional English leisure pursuits and wanted to show this transition.
Closer to his London home in Marylebone he photographed Brick Lane market, Trooping the Colour, the Epsom Derby, Regents Park, Wimbledon, the city of London and Eton College. Throughout these images we see the same recurring themes noted above. He found the same changes occurring in the north of England in Blackpool, Morecambe and Durham.
It is worth mentioning surrealism in Ray-Jones’s work as it is apparent again and again. We see people in faintly sinister costumes in images such as Eastbourne Carnival, 1967 and Bacup Coconut Dancers, 1968. It recurs again in Eastbourne, 1968, in which we see a life guard with a boat on his head his head – completely obscuring it – and, most strikingly, in the photograph Trooping the colour, 1967. In this latter photograph we see a man standing precariously on a deck chair for a better view, his back to a wall, with a policeman stood beside him but, the surreal element is a young girl curled up asleep on the ground to the right of the image. This inclusion of surrealist aspects seems entirely consistent with Ray-Jones’ attention to the interior psychological states of the people in his photographs and their underlying melancholy.
The second room of Only in England contains forty-nine black and white prints from Martin Parr’s The Non-Conformists series. Parr had met Tony Ray-Jones when he was a young student. The style and approach of the older man clearly made a big impression on the young Parr.
Prior to developing his now signature pristine colour imagery in the 1980s, Parr and his future wife Susie spent five years documenting life in and around the Calder valley of Yorkshire. Martin photographed in Todmorden, Mytholmroyd, Sowerby Bridge and Hebden Bridge (where he and a group of friends had founded the Albert Street Workshop). While Martin photographed Susie meticulously recorded facts about his subjects.
The resulting body of work echoes that of Ray-Jones in documenting a process of transition. In Parr’s case it involves communities of Yorkshire’s Calder Valley. Specifically, the vestiges of a once thriving Methodism practised in tiny stone chapels; often in hard to get to locations. These images of chapels, and their congregations, are complemented with images from the Walshaw Moor grouse shoot, a Sowerby Bridge mouse show and a pigeon fancier’s show at Todmorden.
As well as adopting the same documentary approach as Ray-Jones, Parr’s photographs also share some of the same concerns. As would be expected of a northern mill town, we see stoic figures like Charlie and Sarah Greenwood. They are depicted at their farm house and in the Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel. Archetypes of the people depicted in many of the Methodist chapel images, the Greenwoods exude a quiet determined resilience. They appear withdrawn and reticent to a modern gaze; perhaps reserved and dignified by the standards of their own time.
Parr is also concerned with isolation. Not the individual existential alienation shown by Ray-Jones, instead Parr highlights the isolation of aging Methodist congregations collectively lost in time. It is best exemplified by his image Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel, 1977. Glowing from within atop a foggy moor, the chapel seems connected to the outside world only by the threads of telephone wires criss-crossing the countryside around it.
This difference shouldn’t be overplayed though; both photographers are concerned with the individual experience and underlying societal changes. They differ in emphasis with Ray-Jones showing greater concern for the former and Parr the latter.
Similarly, both men share a sense of melancholy at the decline they witnessed. It is more subtle in Ray-Jones’s work and perhaps even a little sentimental in Parr’s. This is surprising to anyone familiar with Parr’s pristine colour work with its characteristic critical irony. Perhaps it was because he was photographing the area in which he was then living (and had childhood memories of from visits to his grandfather, George Parr, in Bradford). He may also have known some of the people he photographed as the Albert Street Workshop was a place where people came to see images of themselves and their neighbour’s lives. Certainly, the detachment we associate with his later work is less apparent here.
In an exercise in posthumous symbiosis, that could only arise in a gallery context, the third room of this exhibition features fifty-three pigment prints of Ray-Jones’ images selected by Martin Parr. Parr spent months going through the 2700 contact sheets in the Ray-Jones archive held at the National Media Museum (Bradford). Parr worked alongside the Media Museum’s curator of photographs, Greg Hobson, in making the selection. Ray-Jones could not have had two more experienced and sympathetic curators undertaking the task.
The symbiosis takes the form of Parr bringing his mature style to the selection process so that the influence of Ray-Jones on the younger Parr is here returned through the latter’s curatorial role. The Tony Ray-Jones we see in this selection is noticeably less meditative than earlier. The images are larger for one thing (approx. 16×20 inches) and their content generally busier and more complex. The printing is frequently higher key too; bringing freshness to the images.
The accompanying notes state that “Parr’s selection has largely focused on Ray-Jones’s expressive use of the space between his subjects”. This use of space was apparent in a few images but not consistently so to these eyes. There is consistently more wit in this group, compared to the vintage prints, and here we see Parr’s mature sensibility imposed on Ray-Jones’s work. That knowingness that Parr shares with his viewer in his own work is now evident in the Ray-Jones images. It is a kind of shared understanding between photographer and viewer that what we are looking at is bizarre, kitsch or faintly surreal. It is best illustrated by the image from Blackpool on the exhibition poster (below). The effect being reinforced by the women at the rear looking at us knowingly as if to say “Yes, that man in front does look ridiculous”.
Only in England is a fascinating comparison of the work of two revered English photographers. Not only does it show us two important and well developed bodies of work exploring similar themes but, in their side by side installation, allows us to see the nuances of style and preoccupations of each photographer more clearly. As a bonus we get to see how Martin Parr’s mature vision subtly alters our perception of Ray-Jones’s work leading us to wonder how the prematurely deceased photographer may have developed himself had he lived. Would he have further explored the psychological and darker (melancholic) aspects of his work or stepped back to give us a more ironic critical view as Parr has done?
For fans of classic black and white documentary photography this exhibition is likely to be the highlight of your year. It really is unmissable.