Icons of Photography: Tony Ray-Jones

Tony Ray-Jones was born on June 7, 1941, in the Somerset cathedral city of Wells. At least, that’s what the books generally say. In fact, it was up the road in the village of Wookey – close to Toomey Hole, the tourist attraction based around the caves in which that most English of cheeses, Cheddar, comes to maturity.

His father, an artist and engraver, died eight months later and he was raised, in Tonbridge, a town of almost parodic English middle-class orthodoxy, by his doctor mother – supported by her parents and the Artists’ Orphans Fund. His life, accordingly, was bittered with almost obsessive stinginess.

There, in those founding facts – of place, family and personal history – are the essential elements of his photography. The English at play. The minute gradations of class. The sharp-tongued dialogue between commerce and tradition. Self-invention, too — in search of a better life, his father had changed his born surname from Jones to the aspirational Ray-Jones. And a biting, nagging sense of loss, unfairness even – precious little of his personal work was published in his lifetime.

After deeply unhappy years at Christ’s Hospital School in West Sussex – echoed, re-created even, in his picture of pupils from his old school, waiting with mothers and trunks on a Victoria Station platform – he studied graphic design at the London School of Printing. He was taught by Bill Brandt’s brother Rolf. Then a handful of pictures, shot through a north African taxi window, got him to America, via a scholarship to Yale. While there, he studied with Alexey Brodovitch – mentor to Irving Penn, Eve Arnold etc etc etc.

By 19, he was a professional photographer, hired in its dotage by the once-great home for photojournalists, the Saturday Evening Post. He was — briefly — an art director at Columbia records. He became friends with jazz pianist Horace Silver. He lived the life of Manhattan, at its full post-Mad Men, Baby Jane Holzer moment. He photographed the Beatles and the Rolling Stones when they came to town. He went to Stockhausen shows.

He took pictures, then took more pictures. ‘We’ve got to keep working,’ he’d say to Joel Meyerowitz – great friend, great photographer, too. They’d spend their Saturdays shooting the passing parades, from Veterans’ Day to St Patrick’s Day. ‘We learned how to shape pictures that were not about an event but about an observation,’ said Meyerowitz.

Moving back to England in 1965, he earned his money working for newspapers and magazines, particularly the new-and-fresh Sunday colour supplements, then home to a generation of photographers, from Don McCullin to Diane Arbus. He did all kinds of work. He even shot the Six Day War in Israel. It was respected too: MoMA bought his prints as early as 1968. He always wanted his work to be on walls and in books, not in magazines. In 1969, he was part of a four-person show at the ICA’s first photographic show – which also featured Don McCullin.

‘Photography to me is an exciting and personal way of reacting to and commenting on one’s environment and I feel that it is perhaps a great pity that people don’t consider it as a medium of self-expression instead of selling themselves to the commercial world of journalism and advertising.’

He steered himself – and his editors – towards a particular end, though. Partly via commissions and partly on his own, he began photographing a record of England as it was – or at least how he felt it was. ‘My aim,’ he said in 1968, ‘is to communicate something of the spirit and the mentality of the English, their habits and their way of life, the ironies that exist in the way they do things, partly through tradition and partly through the nature of their environment.’

This meant pictures of vanishing rituals: the Helston Furry Dance, Wormwood Scrubs fair, the Coco-nut Dancers of Bacup. New rituals, too: beauty contests, Derby Day at Epsom. His best-known picture is of a couple in full evening dress at a picnic table in the company of a small herd of young cattle. Without its caption – Glyndebourne – it’s an amusement, silly even. With it, it becomes something else Ray-Jones liked to do: patrol the margins of class.

All in all, something of a dialogue with Bill Brandt’s 1936 The English at Home. But while Brandt’s view was that of an outsider, Ray-Jones’ was that of an insider. Or rather Brandt was a foreigner learning to feel at home in his new country while Ray-Jones was an insider who worried he was becoming a stranger in his own land. ‘For me there is something very special and rather humorous about the “English way of life” and I wish to record it from my particular point of view before it comes Americanised.’

Travelling the country with his wife Anna in a VW camper van, he photographed the British on their coast, exploring the irony that when we holiday we do it to become someone else yet inevitably become most ourselves. He dummied it up as a book, England by the Sea, but couldn’t sell it to a publisher.

His was a Britain that would soon be washed away by a tide of cheap flights and new horizons. Deckchairs, Thermos flasks and one-piece bathing costumes. Men sunning themselves in caps and coats and braces. Pier ballrooms and a couple on a bench in Great Yarmouth, in the background a sign that would read JOYLAND if it weren’t facing the other way. One of his great strengths was his lack of fear of the obvious.

His pictures should have been patronising, condescending, superficial but they weren’t somehow. His subjects all seem so wonderfully unaware of his presence, so unself-conscious. Even when photographing people’s dreams failing, he could accept our tragic shared humanity. His images are full of lush detail, filled with the democratic delight and wit of À Propos de Nice, the warmly sardonic Côte d’Azur travelogue made by Jean Vigo, one of his favourite movie directors.

‘I have tried to show the sadness and the humour in a gentle madness that prevails in a people. The situations are sometimes ambiguous and unreal, and the juxtaposition of elements seemingly unrelated, and yet the people are real. This, I hope, helps to create a feeling of fantasy. Photography can be a mirror and reflect life as it is, but I also think that perhaps it is possible to walk, like Alice, through a Looking Glass, and find another kind of world with the camera.’

As he was obviously influenced by the great French street photographers (Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Doisneau, Willy Ronis) and the post-war Americans (Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, in particular), so he influenced a generation of British photographers – Chris Steele-Perkins, Homer Sykes and Martin Parr most obviously. ‘They have an ambiguity, a visual anarchy,’ said Parr of Ray-Jones’s pictures. ‘They showed me what was possible.’

The work that made his name was his 1974 book, A Day-Off: An English Journal. In its own way, it was a companion piece to Bailey’s effervescent Goodbye Baby & Amen – an irony he would have loathed. An ambitious, aggressive and dissatisfied young man, he thought Bailey ‘phoney-baloney’. But by the time this name-making book appeared, Ray-Jones had been dead two years.

In 1971, he got a job teaching in San Francisco. He found it exhausting. Only it wasn’t exhaustion, it was leukaemia. Unable to afford American medical treatment, he flew back to England on March 10, 1972. Immediately admitted to the Royal Marsden hospital, he died three days later, aged 30. His ashes were scattered on the same southern French hillside as those of his mentor Alexey Brodovitch who had died the previous April.

© Peter Silverton 2019

If you are interested in Tony Ray Jones you may also be interested in www.donotbendfilm.com that explains who was behind his work first being published in the UK, exhibited at the ICA, London and shown to students studying photography in the late 60s and early 70s.

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