And hence to Ray-Jones, “le Cartier-Bresson Britannique” 1. 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.” 4 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, 5 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.” 6 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 7 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 8 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.” 9
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”! 10
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”. 11 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 street 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.
- 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 – in fact a day with his pictures could drive you to self-harm ↩
- 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 ↩