Eastbourne Carnival, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones
I guess it would be a good time to talk about Tony Ray-Jones, what with his excellent joint exhibition with Martin Parr currently taking place at the Media Space of the Science Museum. Like many British photographers I have been a big admirer of Ray-Jones’ work for some time, but nothing beats actually seeing great prints in the flesh. His work seems fresh and exciting even now, despite most of it being made nearly 50 years ago. For me, his work is successful because of two key elements - balance and theme. By balance I mean in two respects; firstly the actual physical make up of the content of his pictures - the spacial lay-out, the foregrounds and backgrounds, the interaction of subjects and the gaps between them. Secondly I mean the balance of mood, often simultaneously working both humour and melancholy into a single frame, provoking different interpretations and feelings in the viewer. These two examples of balance which can be found in his best images, are key to their success and impact and most importantly make them very interesting to look at. And that is proof of why he is so highly revered; remember you only have a split second to take a photograph, and to include so much, so perfectly requires a special gift. The second element, that of theme, is his decision to photograph what had not really been consiously done before, at least in England. Transporting that American street photography sensibility (pioneered by Gary Winogrand) to the beaches and cafes of little Britain was an inspired and rewarding decision. And Ray-Jones was not in the business of re-enforcing cliche. This was stuff he could see all around him, in fact that was so commonplace and familiar it hadn’t been deemed worthy of capturing before. Utilising the fresh eyes he had gained from some years abroad (America) he was able to import this style and give it this fresh twist - England and what England is, in and of itself and how it is itself and not America or anywhere else. That tea-drinking, flat-cap wearing beach culture can only be found here. I doubt at that point he would have had the foresight to think it was going to die out either. For all the talk of the swinging 60s and modernization, any seaside town (or ordinary town for that matter) would have been littered with these old-fashioned flat-cap wearing men and quaint local traditions. History tells us that the 60s were swinging, but really it is was certain parts of central London that were - Carnaby St, the King’s Rd and David Bailey’s studio for example. I’m sure if you went to Deptford or Hastings or Morecambe or Blackburn at the height of Beatle-mania you would have seen little evidence of this sexually liberated, mop-top madness. It would have been the real world of Ray-Jones, and although things have undeniably changed, albeit in a gradual way, the essence is the same. The capital city is another world and another country to the rest of England. I’m sure these kinds of images can still be found if one ventures from the centres of big cities. Ray-Jones succeeds because he recognises value and beauty in the ordinary. He searches for something he believes to exist and because he believes in it, he finds it. ‘You have seen because you have believed’ Charles de Gaulle once said to Henri Cartier-Bresson. I think there is a lesson there for any young photographer. You can always find and create the world you want, the matter is all out there, you just have to go and find it.