British photographic history

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Media Space: Tony Ray Jones, the opening show

Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr. Between 1966 and 1969 Tony Ray-Jones created a body of photographic work documenting English customs and identity. Humorous yet melancholy, these photographs were a departure from anything else being produced at the time. They quickly attracted the attention of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London where they were exhibited in 1969. Tragically, in 1972, Ray-Jones died from Leukaemia aged just 30. However, his short but prolific career had a lasting influence on the development of British photography from the 1970s through to the present.

In 1970, Martin Parr, a photography student at Manchester Polytechnic, had been introduced to Ray-Jones. Inspired by him, Parr produced The Non-Conformists, shot in black and white in Hebden Bridge and the surrounding Calder Valley. This project started within two years of Ray-Jones death and demonstrates his legacy and influence.

The exhibition will draw from the Tony Ray-Jones archive, held by the National Media Museum.  Around 50 vintage prints will be on display alongside an equal number of photographs which have never previously been printed. Martin Parr has been invited to select these new works from the 2700 contact sheets and negatives in the archive. Shown alongside these are Parr’s early black and white work, unfamiliar to many, which has only ever previously been exhibited in Hebden Bridge itself and at Camerawork Gallery, London in 1981.

Tony Ray-Jones was born in Somerset in 1941. He studied graphic design at the London School of Printing before leaving the UK in 1961 to study on a scholarship at Yale University in Connecticut, US. He followed this with a year long stay in New York during which he attended classes by the influential art director Alexey Brodovitch, and became friends with photographers Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand. In 1966 he returned to find a Britain still divided by class and tradition. A Day Off- An English Journal, a collection of photographs he took between 1967-1970 was published posthumously in 1974 and in 2004 the National Media Museum held a major exhibition, A Gentle Madness: The Photographs of Tony Ray-Jones.

Martin Parr was born in Epsom, Surry in 1952. He graduated from Manchester Polytechnic in 1974 and moved to Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, where he established the ‘Albert Street Workshop’, a hub for artistic activity in the town. Fascinated by the variety of non-conformist chapels and the communities he encountered in the town he produced The Non-Conformists. In 1984 Parr began to work in colour and his breakthrough publication The Last Resort was published in 1986. A Magnum photographer, Parr is now an internationally renowned photographer, filmmaker, collector and curator, best-known for his highly saturated colour photographs critiquing modern life.

Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr. The exhibition will run at Media Space, Science Museum from 21 September 2013 – 16 March 2014. The exhibition will then be on display at the National Media Museum from 22 March – 29 June 2014.

The exhibition is curated by Greg Hobson, curator of Photographs at the National Media Museum, and Martin Parr has been invited to select works from the Tony Ray-Jones archives.

Greg Hobson, curator of Photographs at the National Media Museum says, ‘The combination of Martin Parr and Tony Ray-Jones’s work will allow the viewer to trace an important trajectory through the history of British photography, and present new ways of thinking about photographic histories through creative use of our collections.’

Martin Parr says, ‘Tony Ray-Jones’ pictures were about England. They had that contrast, that seedy eccentricity, but they showed it in a very subtle way. They have an ambiguity, a visual anarchy. They showed me what was possible.’

Media Space is a collaboration between the Science Museum (London) and the National Media Museum (Bradford). Media Space will showcase the National Photography Collection of the National Media Museum through a series of exhibitions. Alongside this, photographers, artists and the creative industries will respond to the wider collections of the Science Museum Group to explore visual media, technology and science.
The Principal Founding Sponsor of Media Space is Virgin Media after whom the Studio will be named. A major donor to the project is the Dana and Albert R Broccoli Foundation set up by the family of the late Bond producer. Media Space has also received generous support in the form of donations or artworks from a large number of individuals, companies and artists.

21 September 2013 – 16 March 2014, Media Space, Science Museum.

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Comment by William Messer on April 13, 2013 at 18:34

Sometime in early 1974, I think, I had occasion to meet with John Szarkowski in his office at MoMA in New York. I happened to have the galleys for A Day Off with me (I think Anna gave them to me). I had wanted to be involved in printing the portfolio that John Benton Harris did print. I'd been looking at Tony's last prints from San Francisco and felt the correct way to handle the portfolio was to extrapolate from them how Tony might have interpreted printing his work in the years after his death. He was still improving as a printer. The alternative concept was to try to match prints he had made of the work in the '60s, which I felt left much to be desired. It didn't go my way.

In any event, Szarkowski assumed that anything I had with me in his office I obviously had brought to show him, which was not the case. But he persisted and I handed over the galleys of Tony's book, which he spent some time perusing. I didn't even know whether he knew much of Tony's work (although I should have, since the VSW exhibition was produced in 1971). Then he made a simple statement, which I wish I'd written down, to preserve the Szarkowskian language. He said, basically, that Tony Ray Jones was the outstanding British photographer of his generation. I simply nodded in agreement and took back the galleys. A that moment there seemed to be the possibility of well deserved institutional attention from MoMA for Tony's work.

Comment by Derek Trillo MA PhD ARPS on April 13, 2013 at 9:53

Apologies - in my excitement I omitted to read the article fully (nothing new there) - It will be in Bradford next year

Comment by Michael Pritchard on April 13, 2013 at 7:53

William - that's a fascinating remembrance of past times. Joel Meyerowitz spoke very positively of TRJ last year when I met him.

Comment by William Messer on April 13, 2013 at 5:58

So many feelings reading about this exhibition. I was a friend of Tony's who got to see little of him. Ironically, he left the UK fed up with all the people who considered him too artsy-fartsy and went to teach at my school, the San Francisco Art institute, from which I had recently acquired my MFA to come to London to work with Bill Jay at the ICA. In a further sad irony, the SFAI students reacted to Tony as too commercial. He couldn't get accepted there either (he'd have been better off at almost any other US art school). While Bill Brandt, whom Tony admired enormously, made almost all his work on assignment/commission. I had always believed the frustration of lack of acceptance in either country contributed to the development of his leukemia.

While I know his exhibition The English Seen was mounted at the ICA in 1969, I do not know whether it ought to be considered a stand alone solo exhibition as it was part of a four artist grouping, which also included Dorothy Bohm, Don McCulliin and Vincenzo Ragazzini (I think it was titled "Four Photographers in Contrast" and was the first exhibition of photography at the ICA; can anyone confirm this?). In 1971 Nathan Lyons' Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY assembled a major Ray-Jones exhibition.

Tony returned to England in March 1972. I was working at the ICA then. According to Bill Jay, Tony was surprised and then, amazingly, excited by his diagnosis of leukemia. He believed there would be inconvenient even painful, treatments but that being ill would have the effect of making him get really serious about his work, focusing him like a laser to work harder. A couple days later Bill told me Tony was asking for me, and I prepared to head out the the hospital; then he added "Tony died this morning." We all were stunned, but there was no time to react. The papers would get wind of it soon and Tony's partner Anna was landing at Heathrow within a few hours; we couldn't let her find out by seeing it on an airport newstand.

Meanwhile, we had just received the VSW Ray-Jones exhibition from the US. My memory is that I helped unpack and install it in the main ICA gallery. But I can't find supporting evidence that it was exhibited at the ICA that spring. Can anyone confirm this?

Finally, as memory converges with the photographic record, I know I visited Hebden Bridge in the early '70s to track down Martin Parr to get one of his pictures for an article I was preparing about British photography. But I believe that I actually found him standing on a ladder just inside the doorway of a building. Of course, one of Parr's best known photographs of this period is of a man balanced on a step ladder in the doorway of a building in Hebden Bridge. So here's an instance of photography eradicating memory rather than preserving it.

Comment by Derek Trillo MA PhD ARPS on April 12, 2013 at 10:27

TRJ brought so much back from New York photographers - I feel he inspired many more in the wave of new British photography in the 70s - 80s. It will be fascinating to see unpublished works from TRJ's archive. What a pity it's in London; any chance of touring...Bradford? Otherwise it's a grand day out as I'll have to see it.

I would have loved to go through the 2700 contact sheets too. I saw a lot (all?) of Parr's Non Conformists exhibition at Bradford when his retrospectiive was on about ten years ago; it coincided with the publicaton of Val Williams' excellent book. You can see the TRJ influence in this early work

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