Declaration of Independence – The English Photographs of Tony Ray-Jones
‘Photography for me is an exciting and personal way of reacting to and commenting upon one’s environment, and I feel that it is perhaps a great pity that more people don’t consider it as a medium of self-expression instead of selling themselves to the commercial world of journalism and advertising.’ Tony Ray-Jones
There are two reasons why – in spite of his inordinately brief career and untimely death – Tony Ray-Jones was one of the most important figures in post-war British photography. Indeed, after Bill Brandt, he is arguably the leading figure, certainly in terms of his influence upon the generations following. In this regard, he heads the group of figures who matured from the heady late-60s to the less than ecstatic mid-70s, a group that includes the names of Donald McCullin, Ian Berry, David Hurn, Patrick Ward, Philip Jones-Griffiths, and John Benton Harris.
Firstly, Ray-Jones’ radical attitude towards the medium and its practice was singularly influential. He advocated strongly that photography was first and foremost a major means of creative expression, to be pursued with diligence, passion, and intellectual rigour. He had little regard for the picture magazine genre, then the principal outlet for the photographer of ambition, castigating its products, with a few honourable exceptions, as superficial. It pained him that he was forced to make a living from commercial assignments, although a healthy streak of pragmatism in his character ensured his frequent condemnation of the magazine system was observed more in theory than in practice.
Nevertheless, for some within the system, biting the hand that fed merited retribution. Ray-Jones would seem to have been discretely ‘blacklisted’ by several editors unwilling to make allowances for his patent non-conformity and general outspokenness. At all times, he attempted to subvert the system, and cut through the limitations of unimaginative editors and their orthodox, storyboard ways of thinking. His evident success in this endeavour, and the obvious excellence of his work, made him an almost immediate model for a young generation of so-called ‘independent’ photographers who eagerly followed his lead.
Closely related to this distaste for the marketplace was the second reason why Ray-Jones’ influence was so profound. For if he demonstrated an ethic that appealed to young photographers, from that ethic derived an aesthetic, a particular way of seeing. And both attitudes were essentially products of transatlantic thinking, but that is precisely the point about Tony Ray-Jones. He came back to Britain from America. He was largely responsible, in effect for importing the American 60s art photography sensibility into this country.
However, what exactly was this sensibility, and what particular inflections did Ray-Jones demonstrate, and actively promulgate? Some understanding of this will serve not only t define the salient features of his work, which excited the miniscule audience that first applauded it, but explain much of the development of early-70s British photography.
Tony Ray-Jones’ finishing school was New York City, at a time when much was happening in that city’s photography. His teachers were the busting streets – ‘the greatest street theatre in the world’ – and his fellow professionals, the liveliest and most independent around. And there were also the Greenwich Village coffee shops and seminar rooms, the many debating forums where photographers met and heatedly discussed the medium. One of the most intense of these forums was Alexy Brodovitch’s Design Laboratory, where Ray-Jones studied from 1962-63.
At that time the laboratory, an idiosyncratic, not to mention autocratic mix of formal courses and informal seminars, was held in Richard Avedon’s studio, and was regarded as the most stimulating ideas arena in the city. The best New York photographers – that is, the best photographers period – dropped in to teach, expound, question, argue. Some were commercially orientated, like Avedon, Irving Penn, or Art Kane. Others, such as Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand, were concerned more with the medium as an outlet for self-expression. The place was stimulating, radical, vibrant, scornful of mediocrity in any form, and Brodovitch became the most important single influence upon Ray-Jones’ creative life. Certainly, he tried never to disregard his teacher’s principal maxim:
‘The problem of the photographer is to discover his own language, a visual ABC. The picture represents the feelings and point of view of the intelligence behind the camera. The disease of our age is boredom and a good photographer must combat it. The way to do it is by invention – by surprise.’
The tenor of 60s photography in New York followed the general impulse informing all the arts practiced here during the two decades from1950. Ideas of good taste, notions of the considered and the decorous were discarded in favour of the contemporary, the vulgar, the raw, and the spontaneous. Iconoclasm was the keynote, existential fervour the abiding characteristic of New York art and the ‘New York School’ of photography. The Brodovitch approach – as exemplified in his own famous photobook of 1945, Ballet – was totally in accord with this zeitgeist. He advocated continually the primacy of feeling and emotion over correct technique and correct manners.
Process replaced content as the photographer’s primary concern. The visible record of the photographer’s mediation of an event became more crucial to photographic expression than an illusionary presentation of an unmediated event – the so-called ‘documentary’ record. The making of the picture became more important than the thing pictured. So, instead of photographing in order to find out ‘what the world looked like’, Brodovitch habitué Garry Winogrand said he photographed in order to find out ‘what the world looked like in a photograph.’ A subtle yet absolutely fundamental shift in emphasis.
It resulted in a concentration upon spontaneity, intuition, and improvisation at the expense of nominally more finite goals, generating images which, in the words of American curator John Szarkowski, ‘seemed tentative, ambivalent, relative, centrifugal: the photographer’s viewpoint and the disposition of the frame seemed consistently precarious and careless – lacking in care.’ The content of such pictures, added Szarkowski, seemed rather ineffable, defining ‘a new method of photographic description designed to respond to experience that is kaleidoscopic, fragmentary, intuitive, and elliptical.’
This apparent revolution in style was essentially only an admission of what photographers had been doing for many years. The photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, for example, were no more nor less formalistic, no more nor less about society than those of Winogrand or William Klein. Cartier-Bresson’s imagery, however, was perceived as journalistic, a deliberately misleading label. There is an oft quoted tale that, in order to gain wider acceptance and decent remuneration, Bresson was advised by Robert Capa to declare himself a ‘journalist’ rather than an ‘artist’, or worse, a ‘surrealist.’
Surrealist, nevertheless, is probably the most apt term in relation to Cartier-Bresson, and happily claimed by Tony Ray-Jones. Susan Sontag, after all, and others has declared photography to be the surrealist medium par excellence. The work of so many so-called ‘journalists’, or ‘documentary’ photographers, from Cartier-Bresson to Bill Brandt to Ray-Jones, despite a shift towards formalism here and a nod towards social documentation there, had been concerned primarily with the subjective distillation of existential experience. As Ray Jones himself stated:
‘Photography can be a mirror and reflect life as it is. But I also think that it is possible to walk like Alice through the looking glass and discover another kind of world with the camera.’
This is the kind of sensibility Ray-Jones imported to a largely unsuspecting English photographic community when he returned to this country in 1967. Looking around, he perceived that most of his peers were either locked into the tried and tested journalistic approach that had evolved over the past thirty years, or still subscribing to anachronistic pictorial conceits that had hardly changed since the beginning of the 20th century – in spite of this being the so-called ‘Swinging Sixties.’ Only in the work of the ubiquitous Bill Brandt, particularly his English documentation of the 1930s, could Ray-Jones find a parallel to the work he had seen in New York, a parallel in terms of ambition, intent, and visual sophistication. He was both depressed and elated by this – depressed at the paucity of ‘serious’ photography, elated by the fact that this made England virtually untouched, virgin territory:
‘Outside of the obvious beauty spots and the Changing of the Guard, England has been remarkably little photographed. Most of the events I go and see, I never meet another photographer.’
In the magazine Creative Camera, the important issue of October 1968 which first introduced his pictures, he made a cogent statement regarding his approach to photographing the English, carefully articulating the oblique, subjective nature of his concerns:
‘My aim is to communicate something of the spirit and the mentality of the English, their habits and the way they do things, partly through tradition and the nature of their environment and mentality. I have tried to present some of these daily anachronisms in an honest and descriptive manner, the visual aspect being directed by the content. For me, there is something very special and rather humorous about the ‘English way of life’ and I want to record it from my particular view before it becomes more Americanised. We are at an important stage in our history, having in a sense just been reduced to an island or defrocked and, as De Gaulle said, left naked. Nudity is perhaps more revealing of personality than a heavily clothed figure.’
It is in comparison to fellow Brodovitch habutué Garry Winogrand where we can determine, I believe, what Tony Bay-Jones brought to British photography. And also, what he did not bring. The differences between the two artists are not, I suggest, simply those of artistic temperament, but also reflect the broad transatlantic cultural divide.
Both Winogrand and Ray-Jones were virtuosi of the 35mm hand-held camera, catching their fugitive subjects on the wing and forcing them into frozen, often disconcerting interruptions of the act of living which Max Kozloff has termed ‘time outs from the game of life.’ The pair, indeed were aficionados of the 28mm wide angle lens, and dangerous and difficult tool, and much of their work could be said to have derived first and foremost from an intense desire to solve a tantalising picture making conundrum – how to fill the unruly wide angle frame with as many elements as possible yet maintain visual coherence.
A formal impulse perhaps, but in order to achieve formal ends it was necessary to seek the company of society. The staple subject-matter of both photographers was, in one manifestation or another, the parade – those tribal gatherings where people congregate for some kind of social ritual, be it a gaggle of shoppers down Fifth Avenue, or a perambulation of interval diners at Glyndebourne, an opening at the Museum of modern Art or a Salvation Army band at the English seaside. So formalism gives way quickly to societal interests, albeit of a highly subjective nature. Yet if the parade was the subject-matter, the subject was the La Comédie Humaine, the personal observation of human manners, myths, foibles, and fantasies.
And here Winogrand and Ray-Jones begin to differ sharply. While both shared a quirky sense of humour, Winogrand was distant, cold, cynical even, Ray-Jones was warm, displaying an innate sense of English fair play, a reserve, and a proper British regard for nostalgia. Neither were, strictly speaking, observers in the socio-political sense. Class and other differences were largely played down, democratised by the photographers’ subjectivity in favour of a concern with homogenised individuality. However, Winogrand’s sour, decidedly misanthropic tendencies inevitably allowed a reflection of society’s unequal power structures to creep into his imagery, not in any programmatic, analytical sense, but psychologically. Winogrand was the eternal outsider looking in.
Being wholly devoid of the large chip Winogrand seemed to carry on his shoulder, Ray-Jones’ American sharpness mitigated by a markedly European and surrealist sensibility, culled from movies by his favourite filmmakers, Buñuel, Vigo, and Jacques Tati, and of course, from the photographs of his great predecessor, Bill Brandt. Irony, rather than cynicism, was Tony Ray-Jones’ weapon. Indeed, he might be criticised for not having progressed beyond this special brand of picturesque surrealism and gentle irony towards a more astringent critique of English society.
In smoothing out, or largely ignoring class divisions except in an oblique, somewhat elliptical way, Ray-Jones rather bucked the trend in English photography of the social landscape, as exemplified say, by the angry melodramas of Don McCullin. One might see this also in the contrast between Ray-Jones’ imagery and that of his friend, John Benton Harris. Both concentrated upon analogous subject-matter, but with different intent and effect. The favourite subjects of Benton Harris – Derby Day, Ascot, Henley –were favoured precisely because they reveal the upper classes with their guard lowered, or at least presenting a nominally more relaxed aspect, which could then be exploited by a photographer of determination and acuity. Benton Harris, a New York of decidedly Winograndian mien, eagerly took every chance to prick bourgeois vanity.
Ray-Jones, faced with exactly the same kind of subject-matter, had the more formal approach. He graced his pictures with a much more elegant, gentle, and apolitical touch, with fantasy and whimsy well to the fore.
Consider, for instance, one of his indisputable triumphs, Ramsgate (1967). At first glance, this photograph would seem to be postulating an argument about the kind of lives observed. All the concrete ingredients are there – children playing, dogs, middle aged couples, a robust old pram, evocative signage (Walls Ice Cream, Tea 6d a cup, Cadburys 99), all the huddled stoicism of a shivering native population by the blustery brine. But exactly what arcane mysteries are being celebrated here? The whole atmosphere seems vaguely disturbing, threatening, even perverse. Ray-Jones’ ‘decisive moment’ seems more accurately an ‘indecisive moment’, its observations sly, evasive, and maddeningly inconclusive – the English not so much seen as suggested.
Anyone looking for history or sociology will perhaps be disappointed. But his fragmentary, elliptical, and intuitive, visually adroit meditations upon life and the moment both delight us and give food for thought, and that marks some kind of cogent commentary upon the English. There is the sardonic humour, the gentle, yet insistent invitation to fantasy, and above all, there is poetry aplenty – if we agree with T. S. Elliot that ‘poetry is experience before we understand it.’
True to his intentions, Tony Ray-Jones certainly did succeed in taking us ‘through the looking glass’ to discover another world with the camera. That process, as Max Kozloff has pertinently observed, surely ‘offers us insights into a social and psychological reality so much counter to the one we know that it might not even be reasonable to call it social.’
We can, however, call it art. In his review of Tony Ray-Jones’ 1968 exhibition at the ICA in London – a show which literally took the British photographic fraternity by storm – Ainslie Ellis wrote that we were looking ‘at the early work of a great photographer.’ Sadly, we were denied the opportunity to see how that immense potential might have developed – his apogee was also his swansong. But for British photography, that work represented a brave new beginning. It showed many young photographers – including a certain Martin Parr – the way ahead, and its influence is still keenly felt.