Humour is said to be a particularly important social convention in Britain. As the American travel-writer Bill Bryson observed: “Watch any two Britons and see how long it is before they smile or laugh over some joke or pleasantry. It won’t be more than a few seconds.” 1
In Britain, humour often acts subversively, whether it be in the form of nonsense (Edward Lear), absurdity (Monty Python), satire (Gulliver’s Travels), irony (as in Jane Austen or Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm), self-parody (Shakespeare’s Falstaff), intellectual wit (Peter Cook) or plain slap-dash (Norman Wisdom).
British society, and in particular English society, lends itself well to this. The “stiff upper lip”, the “mustn’t grumble” attitude to life’s hard knocks, the feeling of being an island bastion, the inability to take continental philosophy too seriously – there are many signs of the underlying English temperament at work. No less a commentator than Die Welt said:
Faced with the onslaught of “fragmenting family structures”, creaking public services and a rapidly rising cost of living, they (the English) employ two weapons: “inexhaustible humour” and a “total rejection of self-pity”.
Humour 2 plays a role in most facets of English life. It is part of the national identity. The playwright Dennis Potter called humour an “English inherent reaction” and considered this as one of the pillars of the English character.
We see it, of course, in British photography. Studies of the eccentric and humorous have not only produced some great pictures, but have also revealed how humour can work by increasing visual tension and creating an emotional response in the viewer. In the words of the English photographer of the 1960s, Tony Ray-Jones:
“Photography can be a mirror and reflect life as it is, but I also think that perhaps it is possible to walk like Alice, through the looking-glass, and find another kind of world with the camera”. 3
Ray-Jones’s well-known photograph of the English gentry at leisure at Glyndebourne shown below depicts this vision well. A field of cows and sheep is a very odd place to have a picnic. The fact that the man and woman are dressed in “black tie” makes it more bizarre until one understands the context of Glyndebourne. So at first there is simply an odd juxtaposition. And then, even within the context (an opera festival), the picture sends up the aristocratic class through the absurdity of the situation. 4
When can we trace the origins of incorporating humour as a device of social comment? The inclusion of humour seems to have ocurred quite late on in the development of social photography.
The noted photographer and British Conservative politician Sir John Benjamin Stone (1838 – 1914) would have had ample opportunity to have taken photographs which poked fun at a particular section of society. But he didn’t. 5
A typical example of his work is the Flora Day at Helston. 6 Without getting into a debate about how Stone’s position in society may have affected what photographs he took and how he took them, we can conclude that his pictures are essentially “documentary”, that is to say “straight”, reflecting “life as it is”, with little attempt at invoking an emotional response from the viewer through humour or irony.
But some pictures were being taken in the early 20th century that hinted at a developing social commentary – a “social point of view”. Take for example Horace Nicholl’s picture, “Derby Day at Epsom Racecourse” taken in 1910. One can’t look at this picture without thinking that this photograph was chosen for publication because it revealed something about the seeming smugness of those who could afford to lose money.
Improvements to camera and film technology and the influx of continental photographers escaping political persecution, such as Bill Brandt, Cyril Arapoff and Wolf Suschitzky, and later Koudelka, brought about big changes in approach and an impetus in developing a point of view.
Photographers such as Bert Hardy, Humphrey Spender and Margaret Monck started to explore the English from particular social standpoints. Monck’s Leica enabled her as a woman to be less conspicuous in a deeply conservative 1930s England when photographing social conditions.
Fast forward to Ray-Jones. 7. Ray-Jones, like Cartier-Bresson, had a sense of vision and timing that brought together situations that bordered on the surreal.
It has been suggested that Ray-Jones’s “lasting images will stand beside the work of Cartier-Bresson.” 10 They won’t, of course! However it is clear that both photographers were influenced by Surrealism, and it is easy to sympathize with the often-quoted view of Ray-Jones as “le Cartier-Bresson Britannique.”
And as with Bill Brandt, who heavily influenced him, 11 Ray-Jones was very taken with film. “I want my pictures to bite like the images of Brunuel films which disturb you while making you think”. Ellis often went to the cinema with Ray-Jones to watch Fellini, the Marx Brothers, Jacques Tati and Chaplin. “I want (my pictures) to have poignancy and sharpness but with humour on top.” 12 As in a Buster Keaton film, surrealism tinged with humour.
We see that humour lightens the pictures. Whereas Brandt’s work is dark and heavy 13 Ray-Jones evokes the lightness and spaciousness we often associate with Cartier-Bresson. While Brandt brought to English photography “the dangerous edge of things”, to quote Robert Browning, Ray-Jones’ photographs signify more a sense of abandonment, poignancy and quirkiness, although also at times a feeling of unease. But his photographs don’t snarl and bite like Brandt’s – more an unconvincing growl.
It’s this “sympatico” approach that distinguishes Ray-Jones from not only Brandt but also his main contemporary and colleague, Garry Winogrand. Gerry Badger’s excellent essay on Ray-Jones 14 points out that whereas “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.”
“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.” 15
Let’s park historiography and look at two of his photographs:
Ray-Jones’ Beachy Head Photograph:
A young woman and man are in an embrace, seemingly oblivious to everyone around them. They are intimate and gentle, locked into a private world – a love affair; a love scene even. A very private act in a public space. But although the lovers hold centre-stage, the photograph is not principally “about” them.
We see the other trippers looking out of the frame, presumably at Beachy Head’s chalk cliffs. Their faces betray unease. Everyone is quiet, pensive and above all avoiding the love scene that is playing out, as though there is an unspoken agreement at work – an act of collusion. Very English! “No sex please, we’re British”! 16
So the photograph is about the relationship between the lovers and the other trippers. The lovers with life-unlived, care-free; the trippers with life-lived, care-worn. But that’s not all. A parallel scene is being played out:
Berger said: “photography is the process of rendering observation self-conscious…. What it shows invokes what is not shown”. 17 What is shown is clear: the lovers and the travellers. But what is not shown? The lovers have a different destiny to the travellers. The two groups are bound to different fates. From premises, consequences flow. The lovers look forward in time, entwined within a common fate. The travellers look back, remembering their own past experiences which are now unfolding before them in the guise of the lovers, momentarily halting the remorseless succession of moments. The former with Future; the latter with Past.
And, Dear Reader, for us observers there is a shock of discontinuity, as we see ourselves in the moment, asking with Seneca, “If we do not live now, then when?” The photograph tears apart the past from the future. Time slows and for a moment stands still, summoning memories as if in response to “Proust’s Madeleine”. We see ourselves as simultaneous members of both groups. With a foot in each camp we are caught between them, between past and future: outside of time and place.
So, we discover levels of meaning: the love scene; the effect of the love scene on the travellers and finally the memories invoked in us in a unique sense of duration (outside time and place). Finally, we recognize our own thoughts, sequestered by the interior dialogue that is this photograph.
For photographs to work this well, a spaciousness and organization is required within the frame that demands that we convert signs into symbols, objects into meanings. Like Cartier-Bresson, Ray-Jones had a gift for doing this. In “Beachy Head” he uses common-fate as the gestalt vehicle. The overall effect is to conjure up a feeling of nostalgia and poignancy.
In “Man with antique bric-a-brac, Wormwood Scrubs, 1967”, Ray-Jones uses juxtaposition and surrealism. This photograph is about a a girl walking past a bric-a-brac (brocante) stall outside the Wormwoods Scrubs prison in London.
The young girl is oblivious of the man and his strange collection of objects. He looks intently at the girl. The objects suggest a man who is slightly odd. His haircut and the shortness of his tie underline his oddness. The moth and the antlers, common dream-symbols, add tension: antlers = virility, moth = psychic awareness – and so the revelry begins, and we are invited in to make up our own story, to transform signs into symbols.
We don’t know her name, but the girl is everything fresh and pure, innocent. She does not notice him.
He looks intently, standing close to the antlers as if needing their symbolic support, like a scene from the Wicker Man. And we the viewers feel ill at ease. But actually he is harmless. A former inmate of the “Scrubs”, Dave was wrongly imprisoned in 1965. With personality disorder, all he needed was treatment and care. His claim to fame was sharing a cell with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, just before he was released three weeks before. He is finding life on the outside tough….We stop here, as we can go too far. But you get the idea.
Ray-Jones was a master at invoking stories through the construction of his photographs. Himself heavily influenced by Brandt and film, his work in turn influenced many British photographers at a time when photography in England was in the doldrums and rather conventional. His significance was that he was able to marry up the unconventional, the joke, the eccentric in his observation of English society with the English penchant for that type of thing. In doing this, his photographs create powerful reactions.
The modern era
Martin Parr and the period to early 2000s
Since Ray-Jones and John Benton-Harris 20 the lineage (if we can call it that) of photographic expression through humorous social commentary was taken on principally by Martin Parr. Ray-Jones’s “pictures were about England,” Parr has said. “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.”
At first sight it appears that Parr’s view is tough and uncompromising. But taken as a body of work in the context of the whole collection we see humanism tinged with affection. Who could not feel a sense of warmth for the young mother’s predicament in this following picture?
Parr’s output and breadth of interest since “The Last Resort” has been prodigious. But even in his more recent study of Llandudno, we see him returning to a (favourite?) theme: the uncompromising but witty and humanistic view of the British at the sea-side:
This approach contrasts strongly with, say, Paddy Summerfield’s “Empty Days” where there is no quarter given, or the gritty work of Chis Killip or David Chadwick’s Manchester. But even in the “gritty” school of photography, some still find that humour helps to tell a story. Graham Smith’s “I thought I saw Liz Taylor and Bob Mitchum in the back room of the ‘Comical” is a good example:
Homer Sykes 23, inspired by Benjamin Stone 24, has also been observing British society with a good-natured but (I think) tongue-in-cheek way for many years. His “Once a Year: Some Traditional British Customs” has received much deserved recognition. Annie-Laure Wanaverbecq of Maison de la photographie Robert Doisneau writes that “…observing his countrymen with humour and curiosity, over several years [Sykes] produced a fabulous visual archive of a nation in crisis and beset by doubt.” 25
Since 2001 – Street photography
Modern British street photography is now the main vehicle for the expression of the humorous, giving us many examples:
Justin Sainsbury’s images perhaps most directly show how absurdity is used to good effect. As he himself says, “without the before and after, a picture (frozen in time), has the potential to change what really happened. To me this triggers an emotional response that is all the stronger if it proves whimsical, irreverent or plainly absurd”. Good examples are to be found at his web-site and his interview with Eric Kim.
Two examples are self-explanatory:
And David Gibson‘s photograph beautifully captures the incongruity of a man sitting on a wall:
And Paul Russell’s quirky vision:
And Dave Mason‘s acutely observed moments:
“I also try not to take pictures that are too sarcastic or belittling, I don’t like the sort of ‘derisive moment.’ I like humour, I like to project my personality in the pictures. There was a newsreader who once said, “we need more happy news.” And he got absolutely panned. People were like, more happy news? We need news. He almost lost his job, but I think that exactly. I’ve tried to be dark and gloomy and atmospheric but it’s not me.”
And Nick Turpin, one of the founders of In-Public for whom “street photography is about selecting the unusual from the mass of everyday, for some of us that means a crazy surreal ‘perfect storm’ kind of happening and for others it can mean the slightest of glances or gestures.” 26
Photography gently mocked the contradictions inherent in English society. Class, race, gender, religion and politics have been put under the lens using humour and eccentricity to parody social conventions. Fun was poked at things that needed to be poked at. As Kate Fox has said 27 the value put on humour is one of the defining characteristics of the English. The rules of irony, understatement and self-deprecation allow and indeed encourage the “poking of fun”.
This has enabled a strong tradition of photography to arise. We have seen that humour is very much alive in British photography, particularly recent Street Photography. Several groups of photographers (In-Public, Burn My Eye for example) continue to reflect on modern life through occasionally emphasising the humorous.
But, where once this observational spot-light took on the hallmarks of social critique and satire, as in Ray-Jones’s and Parr’s work for example (even if subconsciously or very gently), today’s street genre seems unanchored to a form of social comment. Perhaps this reflects a current trend in British comedy where Satire has declined as a form of humour and been replaced with Absurdity and Self-Parody. But here is the rub. Poking fun at others is now considered to be politically incorrect. How long will Society allow street photographers to poke fun?
- Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson, Black Swan, 1996 ↩
- Incidentally, I am not arguing here that other nations do not have a strong tradition of humour; only that it has been especially important in the UK. ↩
- Tony Ray-Jones quoted in “Tony Ray-Jones”, Introduction by Richard Ehrlich, Cornerhouse Publications ISBN 0948797363 ↩
- As well as recognising the possibility that these people are probably rich enough to own a huge farm but would only work it through a tenanted farmer ↩
- His vast collection can be seen at Birmingham City Council http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/benjaminstone ↩
- The early morning “Furry Dance” through the Town. In his book, Stone described this as the ‘most curious and interesting remains of the comus, or wandering dance’, celebrated annually to mark the return of spring ‘to a quaint old horn-pipe tune, repeated so often during the day that the visitor remembers it as long as memory lasts.’ Flora Day evolved from a pagan festival and remains an important annual event for the town ↩
- see: http://www.priceminister.com/offer/buy/57316886/Collectif-Photo-Album-Collection-N-14-Un-Poete-De-L-anatomie-Tony-Ray-Jones-Le-Cartier-Bresson-Britannique-Revue.html ↩
- Ainslie Ellis in the Introduction to “A Day Off – an English Journal” by Tony Ray-Jones; Thames and Hudson 1974 ↩
- For a short biography of Ray-Jones see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Ray-Jones. I am not going to waste your time walking through the facts of his life. Many others have done this well. See – Ehrlich, Richard, ed. Tony Ray-Jones. Manchester: Cornerhouse, 1990. ISBN 0-948797-36-3 (paper); ISBN 0-948797-31-2 (cloth; Roberts, Russell. Tony Ray-Jones: A Key Figure of British Photography and the British Way of Life, Revealed Afresh. Chris Boot, 2004. ISBN 0-9542813-9-X ↩
- Ellis op cit ↩
- Ray-Jones was a student at the London College of Printing when Brandt’s brother lectured there. For a view of Brandt’s influence on English Street Photography see earlier essay ↩
- Ellis op cit ↩
- Brandt did not seem to “do” humour ↩
- http://www.gerrybadger.com/declaration-of-independence-the-english-photographs-of-tony-ray-jones/ ↩
- Ray-Jones in Creative Camera, October 1968 ↩
- Of course a myth about the British, as discussed in Kate Fox’s book ↩
- Understanding a Photograph by John Berger; Penguin 1967; ISBN 978-0-141-39202-8 ↩
- It was Susan Sontag who had identified photography as the surrealist medium par excellence. ↩
- I refer to Gerry Badger’s excellent essay on Ray-Jones and acknowledge Badger’s influence on my thoughts and ideas: http://www.gerrybadger.com/declaration-of-independence-the-english-photographs-of-tony-ray-jones/. The lineage from Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray, through Brandt to Ray-Jones was essentially pre-occupied with a need to depict an existential experience within the subject matter of the picture. This approach, coupled to a realism from the influence of Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, which he had acquired during his time in the U.S., resulted in a very English sense of quirkiness that has gone on to influence many other British photographers ↩
- (the “American in England”, see “Looking at the English” (http://www.johnbenton-harris.com/looking-at-the-english.php) ↩
- The Last Resort by Martin Parr, Introduced by Gerry Badger, Dewi Lewis Publishing 2008 ↩
- op cit ↩
- for a biography see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homer_Sykes ↩
- see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homer_Sykes ↩
- Annie-Laure Wanaverbecq, “Homer Sykes: England 1970–1980“, Maison de la photographie Robert Doisneau, 2014. (French) Accessed 9 July 2014. (Observant ses concitoyens avec humour et curiosité, il produit pendant plusieurs années une fabuleuse archive visuelle de la vie ordinaire dans un pays en crise et en proie au doute. ↩
- private communication ↩
- “Watching the English – The hidden rules of English behaviour”; by Kate Fox; Hodder, 2004 ↩