Drawing parallels: Martin Parr pays tribute to Tony Ray-Jones

Drawing parallels: Martin Parr pays tribute to Tony Ray-Jones

The British photographer Tony Ray-Jones died in 1972 at the age of 30. In his short career, Ray-Jones helped transform British photography, his work influencing a whole generation of photographers, particularly a young Martin Parr.

Ray-Jones’ work and impact is being celebrated on multiple fronts this autumn. A new book, ’American Colour 1962-1965’, collects previously unpublished images from his formative stretch in the United States while ’Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr’ is the opening show at the new Ben Kelly-designed Media Space at London’s Science Museum.

Ray-Jones studied graphics and photography at the London School of Printing before winning a scholarship to study graphics at Yale, taking time out in New York to work and study with the legendary Condé Nast art director Alexey Brodovitch. It wasn’t long before he committed himself to photography full time.

He returned to England in 1965, armed with huge ambition and an anthropologist’s urge to record, classify and even celebrate disappearing tribes (made clear in letters and notebooks included in the ’Only in England’ show). He was also determined on bringing the in-their-face punch, drama and narrative drive of American street photography, as practiced by Robert Frank and his friend Gary Winongrand in particular, to English subject matter.

’American Colour’, published by Mack, is a selection of pictures taken in New York as well as Detroit and Daytona Beach, Florida, many with his fellow photographer Joel Meyerowitz for company. Ray-Jones called these pictures ’isolated sketches’, first steps, shot in colour before William Eggleston and Stephen Shore made that an acceptable thing to do for a photographer of serious intent. And if these pictures only hint at what was to come, they show a developing compositional sense and a nose for the right subject and the nerve to stay with them. (And Hipstamatic fiends will love the Kodachrome cool).

’Only in England’ meanwhile is a new survey of the pictures Ray-Jones took in England between 1966 and 1969, some of which were shown at the ICA’s first photography show ’The English Seen’, alongside work by Don McCullin and others, just before Ray-Jones died. The show includes 60 pictures printed by Ray-Jones and 57 printed by Martin Parr (all in black and white this time) after an exhaustive trawl though the 2700 contact sheets and negatives held by the National Media Museum in Sheffield. And part of the fascination of the show is how Parr treats them, picking the most Parr-like, blowing them up.

The point of the show of course is how much Ray-Jones’ English pictures, first collected in the book ’A Day Off - An English Journal’, published four years after his death, influenced the young Parr. And the exhibition also includes rarely-shown pictures from Parr’s first major project, ’The Non-Conformists’, shot in and around the town of Hebden Bridge in the early ’70s (published in book form for the first time last month by Aperture).

Ray-Jones found his particular English social theatre not on the streets but at seaside resorts yet to suffer post-package deal decline but clearly vulnerable to any affordable alternative; at carnivals and ritualised events, from Glynderbourne to to Crufts; and at Eton and Margate. But they avoid sentimentality or cruelty; no freak show to see here.

And the pictures are as remarkable for the spaces between people as the subjects themselves, with several stories unfolding in the same shot. Parr’s early pictures are, oddly, more formal, more composed, less fun. It wasn’t until his breakthrough work ’The Last Resort’ that Parr really developed what Ray-Jones started and took it somewhere else, if in the same places.

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