Gang of Two – Only In England

Around 45 years ago, two young men, both with a mission about photography bumped into each other in the offices of the British Journal of Photography and got talking. Despite their very different backgrounds they recognised each other as kindred spirits and became good friends.

One was the son of a respected English artist, who died only months after his birth, leaving his mother to bring up a family on a very restricted income; aided by support from various bodies including the Artists Orphans Fund she was able to send him to one of England’s oddest and most antiquated minor public schools, from where he went on to study to be a graphic designer. The other came from a large Irish Catholic family in the Bronx, where public schools were something rather different.

But both had studied at separate times with the same man, Alexey Brodovitch, a legendary graphic designer and art director, and had experienced the vibrant photographic culture in New York in the early 1960s where they found both had many common friends. Both too had very little regard for the small clique that made up the British photographic establishment of those times, and then and later both made themselves unpopular by saying what they thought about them and their limited perspective on the medium. There is a considerable contrast between what some well-known names now say about Tony Ray-Jones and their relationship with him compared with their views expressed at least in private while he was still alive.  John Benton-Harris continues to challenge with his widely-informed and forthright opinions on the medium.

The two men photographed together very occasionally, with most of Ray-Jones’s pictures being made outside London and most of Benton-Harris’s in and around the capital – John says they agreed to split the photographic country between them along these lines. But they worked together in other ways, educating the editors of Creative Camera and introducing them to many of the American photographers whose work they published, and John printed much of Tony’s work, both before and after his death. The show did contain at least 5 prints he had previously owned for many years, and probably other prints in the first section were among those he had printed for Tony Ray-Jones; certainly the majority were from negatives from which he has printed.

So I was very interested to hear John’s opinion on the show ‘Only in England‘ which featured both work that was printed by (or probably mainly for) Ray-Jones during his lifetime and also new prints made from work that the photographer had rejected as not being good enough.  After its showing at the new Media Space in London’s Science Museum, this opens today (March 28) at the National Media Museum in Bradford and continues until 29 June 2014.

After I’d written my own review of the show (and earlier I’d posted a short note based on the promotional video),  I had some lengthy conversations with John, and was pleased to hear that he was busy writing his own review. Since then I’ve asked him quite a few times how he was getting on with it and finally yesterday he was satisfied that it was complete and ready to be seen.

Finally, with a little computer assistance from me, the review is now up on John’s blog with a couple of pictures, at last completed to his satisfaction.  It is a long piece with the title ‘Only Baloney‘, a title which relates to one of Ray-Jones’s favourite phrases (I think borrowed from Brodovitch), as John mentions in his piece:

‘Instead we were given a lot of phoney baloney (Tony’s polite way of saying bullshit) about how a friendship that never was, and a methodology that has nothing to do with Tony’s way of approaching and commentating on existence by a photographer who claims so much respect and appreciation for Tony and his seeing, yet deliberately ignores the information and other evidence he left us and that is also clearly present in Tony’s prints.’

The review reads very much in John’s own voice and expresses his views about both the show and some of the aspects of the rewriting of photographic history it represents. John did give me permission to put the whole of his review on this site, and I may do so later, but for the moment you can read it on his The Photo Pundit blog.

I was pleased to find that his view is largely similar to what I had previously written about the show, though his close knowledge of both the man and his work gives his view a much greater weight. There is quite simply no one who can speak about Tony Ray-Jones and his photography with greater personal knowledge and authority, although many still seem to want to ignore his views.

And, also on John’s blog there is a great bonus. On March 7, artist Edward Mackenzie, another English former Brodovitch student (he recently moved back to this country and set up his studio in Stoke-on-Trent)  gave a talk at the Media Space, about  Tony Ray-Jones who he met in New York in 1966 him along with Tony’s brother, Philip Ray-Jones.  You can see the two of them in a photograph at the top of another post I helped John put on-line yesterday which is the text of Mackenzie’s talk. It’s an interesting and slightly different perspective of both the man and his work.

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