Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr
Greg Hobson opens the exhibition essay stating that ‘Only in England explores the relationship between the works of the British photographers Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr’. To the vast majority the exhibition does just that but my experience demonstrated a conversation between photographers who are capturing the same subject matter only using a different approach.
Entering the space, you’re welcomed to Tony Ray-Jones’ depiction of British customs through the pastiche of the humor in seaside postcards. However, what he captures is utter chaos organised in a frame! The eye is instantly drawn to the center where a couple who looked plucked out of a scene of the Titanic or a disgruntled spectator of a carnival reside which in turn encourages the you to look out at the myriads of the frame which too feature intriguing social interactions.
Images of Brits at the seaside give an idea of what was. Trips to Margate and the Isle of Wright were features of British culture, forging an institution but as the people occupying the frame always look beyond, towards the obscure; we the observers of the postmodern era look at an idea of what was.Dapper Etonians preparing for speech day in 1967, Blackpool beauty pageants judges by amateur male judges gawking at their womanly curves and Mablethrope’s strongest man contest featuring beer-bellies as opposed to steroid driven muscles all capture the eccentricity of human behavior.
As I wove my way through Ray-Jones’ work, glass cases featured notes of him critiquing his work. ‘Engage more with the subjects’ as well as a list of features that compose British life are dotted around his busy frames. Such obsessive analysis gives you an insight into his mind which came from a fear of ‘Americanisation’. He believed the English cultural identity was quickly being diluted as America began to establish itself as a global super-power. What you then see are portraits of working class life during the 1950’s and 60s with no sign of multiculturalism with the exception of Caribbean women occupying the space of an image of Portabello market. However, almost directly opposite are three accounts of the blackface Bacup coconuts dancers sit almost in the center for social comment.
I’ve quickly learnt that when handling an archive and creating an exhibition you should question what’s missing, but when I initially saw the Bacup dancers I thought it should have been left out. What’s more the text accompanying the image displays am irony considering the fact that the museum is often deemed a white middle-class institution. It reads as follows, ‘today we find the idea of blacking up as offensive but the photographs represent the culture of the time Ray-Jones was recording’. The text suggests that minstrelsy was not offensive back then and it was socially acceptable across communities, thus the use of language creates a dangerous generalisation with a colonial undertone as the black people who are mimicked loose their voice through the curator’s vision.
Moving on from Ray-Jones’ depiction of British flamboyance in black and white, Martin Parr, in stark contrast showed a series of images designed to make fiction out of reality. Parr sites Ray-Jones’ as a primary source of inspiration but Parr’s emphasis on space created a distance I struggled to connect with. Social cohesion took precedence causing photographs of factory girls and church communities to generate minimal conversation.
Overall, the exhibition demonstrated two varied positions of British life as both photographers subconsciously appear to be in conversation with one another; but Ray-Jones made a real impression as his multi-layered images had the ability to make the eye think.