Tony Ray-Jones Discovered Yet Again

Good though it is to see the attention currently being given to the work of Tony Ray-Jones with the show at the new at Media Space in London, it is perhaps surprising to see a video about him and the show that fails to mention Alexey Brodovitch, whose classes Ray-Jones attended and which were a key turning point in his development as a photographer. Wikipedia lists among the photographers who attended Brodovitch’s classes Diane Arbus, Eve Arnold, Richard Avedon, Lisette Model, and Garry Winogrand – and there were quite a few other well-known names.

Among the ‘Brodovitch boys’ (and most were male)  peculiarly relevant to us in Britain, two names stand out: Tony Ray-Jones and John Benton-Harris, both of whom came to the UK in the mid to late 1960s soon after their studies with Brodovitch, Ray Jones in New Haven and Benton-Harris in his native New York.

The two only met up after both came to the UK in the mid 1960s, Ray-Jones probably returning home because of visa problems, and Benton-Harris staying on after meeting his future wife at a party when he came here from Italy on his military discharge to photograph Churchill’s funeral. They found they had similar and strongly felt views on photography, and both became involved in bringing the ideas and photographic work they had got to know in the USA to this country.

The best place to find out more about Ray-Jones is on Weeping Ash, a photography web site run by Roy Hammans, which has a whole section about him, including the introduction from ‘A Day Off: an English Journal’, the book published in the year following his death, which reinforced his reputation among photographers. Also there are some other essays worth reading, and one by me, from a lecture delivered in Poland in 2005, where I found his work was previously almost completely unknown. Here is one paragraph from that lecture which I think captures something of his personality:

Ray-Jones did more than take photographs in England, he gave the whole of British photographic culture a much-needed boot up the backside. He brought back from New York a brashness and an enthusiasm for the photography that was unknown in England. In 1968, having completed much of the English project, he introduced himself to the editor of Britain’s only really serious photographic magazine by announcing “Your magazine’s shit, but I can see you are trying. You just don’t know enough, so I am here to help you.” But it was his photographs rather than what he said that convinced Bill Jay that he was worth listening to, and Creative Camera published them.

His enterprise, both behind the camera and in cultural terms, was shared by Benton-Harris, who printed many of Ray-Jones’s pictures both while he was alive and afterwards. Contrary to what has been written, Benton-Harris says he was not fond of the darkroom and never a a great printer, and he suggests few of the ‘vintage prints’ were actually made by the photographer. The one print I own that was unequivocally by him is adequate but not expired.  Unfortunately the prints for  ‘A Day Off‘, the posthumous publication that established his reputation more widely, were made from the negatives by a commercial darkroom, who produced images in a then fashionable heavy style: too contrasty with empty highlights and blocked shadows, giving a distorted view of how the photographer would have wanted and printed his work.

Bill Jay comments in an interview in Russell Roberts’ encyclopaedic book ‘Tony Ray-Jones’, published on the previous occasion when the photographer was re-discovered for the major show at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television at Bradford in 2004, that the 120 pictures in ‘A Day Off‘ “had lots of photographs from the same shoot, and Tony would not have tolerated that...”, but it does contain those pictures which the photographer himself thought were his best work and were included in earlier book dummies he produced.  Jay’s criticism has some validity, but perhaps only for half a dozen or so of the 120 images.

It was a book that reflected the style in photographic publishing at the time, with rather heavy and contrasty images, which perhaps helped it make the impact it did on many young photographers, myself included. But it was never a look that I liked much, though it suited a few of the pictures well. But the print I have on my wall of the Bacup Coconut Dancers in 1968, made by Ray-Jones himself for his 1969 ICA show is far more subtle. Sadly it was omitted from the Roberts book, perhaps under the influence of Jay’s comments, for this was one day that the photographer made two fine images of the same group – and is perhaps the better of the two.

The printing for the NMPFT show (and the book) was I think state of the art, squeezing everything possible out of some often very difficult negatives and generally impeccable. Excellent inkjet prints, often rather superior to the original vintage prints, were also made available at very reasonable prices (I bought several), and every photographer could afford to have a Tony Ray-Jones on their wall.

Ray-Jones was, as Jay commented “a very, very, careful editor.” He looked very carefully at all of his images. I’m not yet convinced that having another photographer – Martin Parr – going through his contact sheets and apparently picking out another 55 images for the current show is a good idea. For better or worse, these previously unseen images (assuming they are so – and not as in some other shows just hyped as such) are ones that the photographer rejected.  I’ve yet to see the show, but those I’ve seen so far look to me more like near misses than more of his very best.  The show at the Media Space also includes work by Parr, black and white images made in the 1970s when he was very much influenced by Ray-Jones, and which for many photographers remains his best work.

There is also a new book published of colour work by Tony Ray-Jones, American Colour 1962–1965 . Again I’ve only seen what is available on the web, but on the basis of this, I think it does nothing to enhance his reputation. There is perhaps a reason why after he came back to England he used only black and white for his personal work, although commissioned work was often in colour.

Benton-Harris sometimes went out working with Ray-Jones, and they shared a similar point of view.  He printed much of the photographers work both before and after his death, and wrote the obituary which appeared in Creative Camera. His work too appeared in Creative Camera, with a fine portfolio in the final Creative Camera Annual (which also contained three of my pictures in a rather different style.) Later he was the main organiser behind American Images: Photography (1945-80) at the Barbican in 1985, a show which introduced many in the UK to a whole new world and also curated other shows.

His web site includes some of his better images, and includes work from recent years as well as his Looking at the English and St Patrick’s People.  He is currently working on a book containing some of his work on the English, Mad Hatters – a diary of a secret people.

3 Responses to “Tony Ray-Jones Discovered Yet Again”

  1. […] photography here in the UK for some years. If you don’t already know the work of TRJ (see my Tony Ray-Jones Discovered Yet Again), then you are obviously very new to photography, and it will be a revelation, and if you do know […]

  2. […] what it asserts in the ‘Media Space’ show, Tony Ray-Jones was one of them – see here and here.) Perhaps a true problem of digital is that is has more or less dispensed with the talents […]

  3. […] claim some inspiration from the work of Tony Ray-Jones, a photographer I’ve written about on many occasions, and who before his early death in 1972, as I wrote “gave the whole of British photographic […]

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