My visit to the exhibition, “Only in England”, the photography of Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool promised to be a treat, and a treat it was – but perhaps not for the reasons that I had anticipated.
Much has been written about Ray-Jones’ approach to documenting the contradictions in English society [see for example this], and indeed many of the photographs on display show the Ray-Jones trademark of looking at “ the organised chaos of everyday life” through accentuating the eccentric:
“Eccentricity is a quality the British prize above many others. It may be … at times a nuisance, but it decides character and individuality. It also pleases the escapist imp in all of us” – he once said.
As John Szarkowski, that great promoter of photography, said:
“…the surprising thing about Ray-Jones was that he had a different idea of what subject matter was possible for serious photography. It did not have to be heroic or poetic in any overt sense: it could be on the surface as tedious or as bland as our real tedious and bland lives usually are, and the photographs might still be compelling.” – John Szarkowski, Director of Museum of Modern Art, New York (1962-1991)
We get all of this in abundance at the exhibition, and wonderful it was to see too.
But what I admired most was the juxtaposition of Ray-Jones and Parr through the curatorial eyes of Parr himself. Parr’s selections, emphasising the “expressive use of space between subjects”, pick up on a quality that provides a common thread between Ray-Jones and Parr.
Differences between the two there surely are: where we see a sense of comedy and the bizarre in Ray-Jones, in Parr we see something more melancholic and serious.
Where Ray-Jones evokes the lightness and spaciousness we often associate with Cartier-Bresson (Ray-Jones has often been labelled, “le Cartier-Bresson Britannique”), in Parr we see pathos and resignation to finitude.
Where Ray-Jones seemed to feast on the “theatre of the absurd”, Parr’s diet is plain and Yorkshire in its simple directness, but more powerful for it.
Where Ray-Jones is “warm, displaying an innate sense of English fair play, a reserve, and a proper British regard for nostalgia” (Gerry Badger), Parr’s work on the non-conformist chapels was more single-minded in its approach and objectives.
But there is an underlying continuity in expression between the two artists. Parr’s congregation of Steep Lane Baptist Church not only has a rhythm reminiscent of Ray-Jones, it has an eye for placement (as well as being a little bizarre).
And in “Anniversary Tea, Steep Lane Baptist Church” we see Parr at his most surreal,“ creating fiction out of reality”, close to the Bill Brandt-inspired work of Ray-Jones.
Ray-Jones never fails to delight. Particularly poignant for me was his photograph of Christ’s Hospital boarding school boys waiting for the school train at Victoria station in the 1960s, something which I often endured, and the letter of condolence from Paul Strand on his early death (he was only 31).
But it was Parr’s black and white work that was a revelation to me, having only before seen his colour photographs.