1968 was a year now remembered as one of revolt, riot and rebellion. In the United States it became clear how divided the country was on the Vietnam War and Civil Rights, with events such as the Tet Offensive and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. causing the growing tension to reach a peak. It was a year filled with violence and protest as the world grappled with conflict, the Cold War roared on, and seismic events seemed to follow one after another.
1968 was the result of almost a decade of social protest, and gave revolutionary hope to those wanting change. While America reached new heights by orbiting the moon, all was not well down on Earth. The United States lost a Navy intelligence ship and two proponents of peace were assassinated, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. The coordinated attack by 85,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese targeted 36 major cities and towns in South Vietnam. During the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, two black athletes staged a silent demonstration against racial discrimination in the United States. The My Lai massacre occurred, whilst students rioted on the streets of Paris and London. Valerie Solanas, an American radical feminist, shot Andy Warhol and police and anti-war demonstrators clashed at the Chicago Democratic National Convention, as theatre censorship ended in Britain.
1968 was also the year in which a young photographer with a fashionable Zapata moustache and an unshakeable belief in his own ability suggested to a photography magazine editor that if he was as committed to the future of photography as he claimed they had to travel together to New York. Whilst there, the photographer stated they would meet all of the photographers the editor needed to meet. The photographer was Tony Ray Jones and the editor was Bill Jay.
Tony Ray-Jones studied at the London School of Printing, where he had concentrated on graphic design, not photography, despite this he obtained a scholarship that enabled him to join the Yale University School of Art on the strength of photographs he had taken on a trip to North Africa from a taxi window. Although only 19 on his arrival at Yale, Ray-Jones’ talent was obvious, and in 1963 he was given commercial assignments for Car and Driver magazine and the prestigious Saturday Evening Post.
Eager to use photography for more creative purposes, Ray Jones began attending the Design Lab held by the legendary Harpers Bazaar magazine art director Alexey Brodovitch in the Manhattan studio of Brodovitch protege photographer Richard Avedon. The Design Lab introduced him not only to new ways of working but also the New York photo community he was to later introduce to Jay. Ray-Jones graduated from Yale in 1964 and left for Britain in late 1965.
On his return to Britain, he was shocked at the lack of interest in non-commercial photography, exhibiting photography and in the publication of books presenting contemporary photography. Unsure of what subjects to document, the idea of a surveying the English at leisure gradually took shape, as he accepted commissions of portrait and other work for the Radio Times, Sunday newspapers, and magazines.
Meanwhile Jay had been evolving an amateur photographers magazine called Camera Owner into Creative Camera, a magazine serious about both the history of photography and the new independent contemporary work beginning to develop in the UK. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about this here as I previously made a feature length documentary film on Jay that you could watch if you wish at www.youtube.com/watch?v=wd47549knOU&t=60s. Suffice to say that when in 1968 as suggested by photographer John Blakemore, Ray Jones met Jay to show his prints, Jay could not have expected Ray-Jones’s opening gambit.
“Your magazine’s shit, but I can see you’re trying. You just don’t know enough, so I am here to help you”.
Initially taken aback as soon as Jay saw the prints he recognised the importance of his work and featured the images he had been shown in the August 1968 issue of Creative Camera magazine. Jay also agreed to go with Ray-Jones to New York despite having to sell everything he had to purchase the ticket. They stayed for free at the Chelsea Hotel on the promise that Ray-Jones would make some photographs for them, and set out to meet the photographers Jay rated, including Joel Meyerowitz, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, W.Eugene Smith and Weegee, just weeks before his death. They also met up with John Szarkowski, at the Museum of Modern Art and travelled up-state to East Hampton and the John Eastman House to meet curator Bill Jenkins, amongst others.
The story of this adventure is well know and exists within the myths surrounding the relationship between Jay and Ray-Jones. Jay wrote about his meeting with Arbus https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2021/02/25/diane-arbus-a-personal-snapshot/ , and the resultant influence of the trip is clear to see in the subsequent issues of Creative Camera magazine on their return. Jay spoke of how he had bought Eugene Smith a new pair of shoes as he could not afford a pair and exhibited Ray-Jones’s work at the ICA in 1969, published new work in his Album magazine in 1971 and evangelised about him and his photographs in talks to students in colleges, including Martin Parr, Daniel Meadows, Homer Sykes, Graham Smith and Brian Griffin until his departure to the US in 1973.
The facts I have outlined are known by those who have been interested in the story of these two men whose influence on British photography has been recorded. However, what is not known and what has not been seen are the contact sheets created during that week in New York. My research over the past four years has led me to those very contact sheets, hidden in a plastic box in a house in Tempe, Arizona.
Now for the first time I am publishing a selection of them here. I do not know if the images were all created by Jay or if Ray-Jones had a hand in the images. Some definitely show the influence of Ray-Jones in composition and subject matter. But just as many great master paintings are described as being ‘the school of’ so could be said of these contact sheets. I presume that the chinagraph marks and dot stickers were added by Jay.
The contact sheets were not well made and I did not have a professional set-up with me to document them, but I do feel that despite this they give an insight into where they went and what they saw aside from the famous photographers and curators during that historic journey.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).
Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/
© Grant Scott 2021