A short review: Only in England – Tony Ray- Jones and Martin Parr

A while back I visited The Science Museum to see ‘Only in England’ a photography exhibition showcasing the work of Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr.

The work was simplistically displayed in a timeline that travelled through 1960’s-70’s Britain, and the shots themselves were so understated and matter-of-fact that the work allowed you to explore and discover without feeling directed.  

It was curious to see the partly assumed British ‘‘way‘ captured from coast to coast with such compositional brilliance that the spontaneity of each photograph was honest and seemingly fleeting.

It was – in part – a reminiscent journey for me as the winding lanes that bank the Yorkshire Moors made up a whole section of the exhibition. The shots were mainly taken in Hebden Bridge – which is a stones throw away from where I grew up – interestingly juxtaposed by the contrasting images they nestled between on the time line from beach shots in Brighton and pedestrian shots of 1960’s London. I gleefully traced each of the images in hope that I’d spot a relative or family friend captured in a monochrome moment.  I found myself drawn to each character that was presented and not only admired the way they were framed in the shot but how they themselves were almost entire works of art. From the fabulously flirty mini dresses to the suited and booted fellas at the beach – each person so brilliantly unique yet captured in a unity that could have collated the whole collection. 

In a short interview with Martin Parr he explains how the earlier works of Tony Ray-Jones had inspired him to revisit and recapture some of the images some 40 years later.

Although they never met, the compositional styles of both photographers are for me inseparably combined in this exhibition. Parr worked from a lot of Ray-Jones’ original notebook scrawls to understand his mode of practice and where he took inspiration. In a list titled how to make work from Ray-Jones notes one thing that stands out is the importance of patience in photography; a point that you can see is well mastered and nourished within both photographers work. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, Ray-Jones’ scrap book – also on show at the exhibition – contained lots of bustling seaside postcards from the 60’s which are clearly mirrored in his photographs of eccentric Britons sprawling the beaches with make-shift sun shields and well packed picnics.  

Overall, I’d describe the exhibition as an unapologetic display of British folk living their lives. The collection had humour and captured the nuance of human personality and it was very interesting to see those blink-and-its-gone moments displayed so beautifully in this well-travelled exhibition.  

Blackpool (1968) Tony Ray-Jones – Only in England

Open field poetics

There are elements of creative work that involve instant reaction and quick adaptation to the environment. Making artistic work can often be a dialogue of call and response that builds rhythm and a collaborative existence between people, materials, technology of whatever is inhabiting the space at the same time. 

For me this dialogue is a constantly evolving exchange, building and dismantling, morphing and rejigging repeatedly. I was reminded of this process a few years ago when I attended a creative writing masterclass lead by Iain Sinclair. Iain is a writer and filmmaker inspired by pyschogeology, 1960’s London and the Beat Generation Poets and for me, his masterclass delivery was as creatively inspired as the topics he was discussing. 

Below are my notes, responses and key moments written in the style of them Beat Generation Poets and left unedited.             

The talk had a kind of rhythm. Navigating through remnants of post-war East London and settling in a mist of preprinted captions and quotes that read like sweeping lists of poetic consciousness. The delivery perfectly synchronised with the material. Making sense in another time. And now. Jack Kerouac captured episodes from reality that were ‘enriched and high octane.’ Sinclair says on Kerouac he was an ‘inspired celebrator of the ordinary.‘ He coughs. Swiss American photographer Robert Frank would capture things spontaneously. He clears his throat. No framing. Just the energy of the moment. He wanted to make stuff on his own terms. Had the patience to wait for the time to click. Like choreographic process, being ruthless and keeping only the bare essentials. Further talk of the Beat Generation; not just drugs, drink and liberation. Black mountain poets. Charles Olson. An era to artistically advance its predecessors. Time taken and delicately captured. Things that are happening on the edge, that might become something. The ephemerality of live performance. Ginsberg comes into topic – at one point seeking wisdom and change. Road trip with Peter Orlovsky. Radio beamed circumnavigation. Scribbling ‘I don’t do anything schematic, its relevant data that comes into the landscape.’ Or something like that. Happenings reduced to language. William Burroughs calls it a virus-language, contracted by the use of images. David Lynch. Bob Dylan. Andy Warhol. We are all creating an image vine, and no image is happening in isolation. A branch is a word. So what are the leaves? Photography, yeah it really is like capturing a future that is there already. Manipulating time. Manipulating image. Manipulating time. I talk about the discovery of authenticity in improvised performance. Capturing a moment as it leaves, and leaving a moment you want to capture. Dance. Movement phrases. Cut up like film editing. Put words together that make a different kind of sense. Sinclair on Burroughs ‘he exists as shadow and substance‘…image melts into further image….image fights sound. It does. Which do you see first? Can you see something different if you look again and again and again and again and again. Originality lies in repetition. A photograph used to be the material of a process. A negotiation with light. Eyes shift across the room. Various questions about opinion and London and questions for no reason. Everything is instantaneous, too quick. Society has become cannibalistic. Novel into film, into second adaptation, into musical. Now what? A published book goes from on-screen type up to carbon copy print-up. Process. Too Quick. Disengaging. Movement and muscle memory. Writing with the body. Physicality of language, again. We clap.