/ Two Exhibitions of Tony Ray-Jones – Two Ways of Giving Context to Photographs
The good news is that the Media Space is open. After a troubled gestation which has included the departure of senior personnel and long delays, the Science Museum in London has at last opened its exhibition space specifically devoted to showing the priceless and largely inaccessible collections which have spent so long doing so little in Bradford at the National Media Museum, the Science Museum’s daughter house there. The Media Space immediately becomes the finest exhibition room for photography in London. It is a strikingly large (and notably very tall) hall fronting appropriately on Exhibition Road in the very middle of Albertopolis, the Prince Consort’s dream, the world’s first and greatest cultural quarter. The Media Space is engineered to the highest current standards of museum climate control, and can therefore host any material from any period of photographic history from any lender, however cautious its insurers. The great national collections of photography now have a jewel box in which to be seen, and first-rate research, touring shows, publications and so on should naturally follow. Whether they will do so or not is the sixty-four thousand dollar question.
The opening exhibition is not when we had been promised it – the opening has been postponed several times, most recently from June. It is not what we had been promised, either – that would have been a temptingly original show called Revelations, exploring artists’ responses to changing photographic technology. That has been postponed. The Media Space opens almost with a “soft launch”, a show in tribute to Tony Ray-Jones with a great deal of input from one of the many photographers to acknowledge a great influence from him, Martin Parr.
The irony of this opening selection has been lost on nobody. The last major Ray-Jones exhibition was made in-house in 2004 at the (then) National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford by the curator Russell Roberts. Roberts became one of several collections specialists lost in the great shuffle that included the change of name to the Media Museum, and with it a change of emphasis away from the collections to a broader – purportedly more inclusive – museum experience. When the Bradford museum’s focus was still on the objects in its care, it was perfectly capable of producing a fine Tony Ray-Jones retrospective exhibition with a good accompanying publication. After all the drama of the creation of the Media Space, the new joint venture with the Science Museum, after all the thoughts and second thoughts, the fund-raising and hope-raising, what the two institutions have come up with is precisely what they were able to do before. It’s in London, and that is a very important difference, and it’s in a very pleasing purpose-built exhibition space, the likes of which even a museum the size of the Media Museum cannot match. But the actual business of showing works from the collection has so far in no way been qualitatively improved by the new arrangement.
Tony Ray-Jones was a British photographer who died very young in 1972. He was barely thirty. He had studied in the US, formally at Yale and less formally under Alexey Brodovitch, the great design chief of Harper’s Bazaar who acted as mentor to a generation of photographers. Through Brodovitch’s Design Studio workshops, Ray-Jones met and immediately imposed himself as the equal of a host of now-familiar names, Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand among them. Ray-Jones came back enthused with the twin and dovetailing ideas that Britain was filled with subjects for social photography yet lacked a self-conscious photographic community able to make and circulate the pictures.
He was a driven and energetic man, and in the late 1960s before his untimely death he quickly became one of the foci in a network of new barely-institutional groups driving towards a new conception of photography as a means of expression, over and above its accepted role as a recorder. There was, for example, the amazing flat belonging to another brilliantly questioning photographer of the time, David Hurn, at 4, Porchester Court, in Bayswater, which numberless photographers used as a drop-in centre, where Bill Jay produced his short-lived but still-luminous magazine Album, and Leonard Freed or Josef Koudelka might be staying at any time. In the commercial world, Marc Boxer, the first editor of the Sunday Times Magazine, had already been the editor of Queen from 1957 -1961. Queen published Cartier-Bresson on China in three successive issues in early 1959; it is easy today to forget the quality of this period of photographic activity in the UK. UK advertising was adventurous with photography and rising to the height of the world rankings, too.
Only the national institutions themselves were comically, ineptly, closed to photography. Mark Haworth-Booth quoted with some relish the response of Sir Leigh Ashton, then-director of the V&A, to a 1954 request by Roger Mayne to show institutional interest in a fledgling photographic group:
I am afraid it would only be a waste of time to come to discuss this question with me as photographs are entirely outside the terms of reference of this museum….”[i]
Photographs were apparently outside the terms at the National Gallery, The Tate, and almost everywhere else, too. Even at the ICA, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Bill Jay and then Sue Davies had to struggle to generate institutional interest in what was quite clearly already of great interest to the audience.
But that didn’t mean that the photography was not being made. Ray-Jones was in the eye of all that. His own habits, of careful forward planning and long-term strategic manoeuvring toward an objective, are clearly indicated in the fascinating selection of diary pages and memoranda included in the Media Space show. It’s probably wrong to think of Ray-Jones as a wholly original photographer; his interest in the very British stratifications of life follows Bill Brandt and a host of the Picture Post photographers, and his uncanny ability to group the people in his pictures in telling clusters of the connected and the unconnected points to UK precursors like Roger Mayne as well as a number of Americans. In his conception of his profession, though – indeed in conceiving of it as a profession at all – Ray-Jones was highly original. His clear vision was of the freelance photographic career, and he pushed himself to treat photography as a professional activity on a par with television or publishing. He died very young, too soon to see how successful his attitude was to be. There is another pleasing little irony in that a man who fought so hard for recognition of his trade as worthy of proper analysis and study in a climate of almost entire institutional hostility should now be honoured in the grandest institutional setting.
It is of course entirely appropriate for a great national museum to devote an exhibition to such a figure. His name, while well-known to shutter bugs, is hardly a household one. He died young and his major work (A Day Off) was published posthumously. He had a phenomenal eye, and exquisite sure-footedness in negotiating the intricacies of his main subject-matter. Put loosely, that overarching subject was that Britain was going to lose a certain distinctive aura as it shed the post-war austerities and moved towards a late twentieth-century consumer society. But to see these pictures is to be astonished by how rarely Ray-Jones falls into any crude sociology. People bear the marks of caste and class in his pictures, but they don’t by any means necessarily have to behave in ways stereotyped by class.
The show is divided into three sections which suggest that Greg Hobson, the curator, felt a trifle of nerve at the prospect of filling his new and frankly grandiose space just with the pictures alone.
Ray-Jones printed his black and white pictures small, in a dark register of tonally very dense prints. The National Media Museum has lots of these, and perhaps to devote the cavernous new space only to such small pictures would have been a mistake. Even backed up with a mass of supporting material, including the fascinating pages from Ray-Jones’ diaries, the prints would struggle to fill the space. So only the first section is devoted to about 50 beautiful little Ray-Jones vintage prints. Two whole sections have been added to the exhibition to flesh it out.
The Media Museum asked Martin Parr to react to the pictures by Ray-Jones. A second exhibition section is a series the museum has recently bought of Parr’s own photographs from the Pennines in the mid-70s at the outset of his own career. These ostensibly pay tribute to Ray-Jones as a precursor. Printed larger than Ray-Jones ever would have in a very different register of washed-out pale grey, they are perfectly acceptable English social documentary: a couple of interesting series, on grouse-shooting and on Methodist congregations, which do a job of showing how Ray-Jones’ thinking became the shared thinking of the generation which carried on after his death.
Parr is one of many photographers to acknowledge a debt to Tony Ray-Jones. These early pictures do not yet have the mastery of the spaces-between-people that Ray-Jones had and that Parr would later acquire. Indeed, not the least of Martin Parr’s generosities in his remarkable contribution to this exhibition has been to accept to show what are frankly all-but juvenilia of his own next to some of the great masterpieces of his predecessor. But the whole exploration of the relation between Ray-Jones and Parr gives a false weight to the exhibition, canting it away from the earlier and towards the later photographer with no corresponding revelatory return of interest to Ray-Jones.
It might have been better to show a number of photographers sharing some of those ideas rather than giving over so much of the show to Martin Parr alone. A delightful exhibition in London does just that. At his gallery in Savile Row, James Hyman has matched a group of vintage Ray-Jones prints with a small but wide-ranging group by a number of others in the same vein, earlier as well as later. Bert Hardy and Roger Mayne were doing highly deliberate work on the British way of life long before Ray-Jones came back from America, and a number of others have done so since and still are. Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Colin Jones, Ken Grant, Homer Sykes, Anna Fox and Chris Killip are included in Hyman’s elegant survey as well as Parr. Mark Power’s sharp observation on Ray-Jones’ favourite location, the beach, is there, too, from his now little-seen early 1990s project The Shipping Forecast. This is the right way to see Ray-Jones in context, and the short trip from Kensington to Mayfair is well worth it to flesh out Ray-Jones’ contribution to a whole genre of peculiarly British photography. We grew familiar with terms like ‘independent photography’ and ‘engaged photography’ and ‘personal photography’ in the decades after Tony Ray-Jones died. He was always independent and engaged and the pictures were always personal.
The third part of the Media Space show is where it falls down. Parr was asked to go through the Ray-Jones files in the museum’s archive and select pictures to add to the canon. This is an odd but perfectly valid exercise, and Parr as editor or researcher has found a number of pictures which stand up very well. He has, for example, put next to each other two brilliant studies of blindness – Bournemouth, 1969 and Blackpool, c.1967 – in which we see how close Ray-Jones could get (although he rarely himself used those pictures and we think of him as a photographer who tended to keep his distance). The Bournemouth picture, in particular, in which a lady shields her eyes while sunning herself on a beach, has a formal composition of sheer brilliance. The lady is close to the camera, her neck a pleated thing of many folds. Directly behind her she partially blocks our view of a column of four other people, propped at angles from the vertical. To our right, her left, a large space is all Ray-Jones needed to define her temporary suspension by sun and ease from ordinary social convention. It’s a lovely picture, and Martin Parr has done a great service in finding and drawing attention to a number of these. But he has unfortunately chosen to print them in a way quite alien to anything Ray-Jones ever made: they are printed in Parr’s own way, as larger, paler, more diffuse things in mid-tones that Ray-Jones would never have countenanced. They are printed, inevitably, by digital process.
Greg Hobson, the curator, is quoted as having said : “The combination of Martin Parr and Tony Ray-Jones’s work will allow the viewer to trace an important trajectory through the history of British photography, and present new ways of thinking about photographic histories through creative use of our collections.”
But sadly, these Ray-Jones by Parr prints add up to an appropriation of the former by the latter: they are Martin Parr pictures taken from Tony-Ray Jones negatives, and it would have been better not to have shown them so. They are fine images, but they should have been seen in some other way: on digital screens, perhaps, or as modern post-cards. Anything to make quite explicit the clear break with Ray-Jones’ own prints. That the images they contain are very fine is not in doubt. But I take leave to question whether they “present a new way of thinking through creative use of the collections”. They are well labelled and for specialists there will be no difficulty in knowing that they are not by Ray-Jones. But for the public I am not so sure. Suddenly two-thirds of the show are in this larger, modern, digitally printed form, either by Parr himself or by Ray-Jones-through-Parr. It looks as if that is the dominant group. The smaller group of Ray-Jones’ own prints could easily have fitted in some existing gallery space, at The Photographers’ Gallery or somewhere similar. And if that’s so, then why was it so important that the Media Space should take shape at all?
There is much of interest in the launch exhibition of the Media Space. For myself, most of that is concentrated in the first section, where we have the chance to get close to fifty lovely, complicated, questioning, beautifully composed views of what it was to be English in the 1960s. My view is that the gamble with making modern prints from the old negatives has not come off this time, and that it dilutes the concentrated attention on a great master’s way of making photographs. But there will surely be times when it will be absolutely right for an adventurous new department to invite talented and devoted outsiders to play with the collections in this way, and then we will see the freshness which new attention can bring to the old material.
[i] Quoted in Haworth-Booth, Mark: Photography, An Independent Art, Photographs from the Victoria & Albert Museum, 1839 -1996, V&A Publications 1997, at p. 133.
Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr at the Media Space in the Science Museum, London, until 16 March 2014.
Another Country : Vintage Photographs of British Life by Tony Ray-Jones , and Country Matters at James Hyman, 16 Savile Row, London, until 11 October 2013