Tony Ray-Jones: Through the Looking Glass
Words: Dean Brierly
One doesn’t often encounter a photographer who embodies the social satire of William Hogarth, the sociological thrust of George Orwell and the surreal humor of the Marx Brothers. But Tony Ray-Jones was nothing if not unique. Born in 1941 in Wookey Hole, Somerset, Ray-Jones not only pioneered a distinct sub-genre within the documentary mode, he did more than any of his contemporaries to change the face of British photography in the 1960s.
His work, at once subjectively complex and slyly subversive, gave the impression that one was seeing England for the first time. Ray-Jones famously said, “Photography can be a mirror and reflect life as it is, but I also think that perhaps it is possible to walk like Alice, through a looking-glass, observe the puzzles in one’s head and find another kind of world with the camera.” His legacy helped ease the path for similarly inclined photographers like Chris Steele-Perkins and Martin Parr.
The youngest son of the painter and etcher Raymond Ray-Jones, Tony studied graphic design at the London School of Printing and Yale University School of Art. It was there that he met the influential art director Alexey Brodovitch, who encouraged Tony to take his budding interest in photography to another level. After graduating from Yale in 1964, he worked on assignment for the Saturday Evening Post, Car and Driver and other magazines while honing his street photography skills in New York, Detroit, Chicago and several other cities. According to his brother Philip, “Tony thought a lot about social justice. When he lived in Harlem it gave him an insight into black culture and the problems they faced. Later, in San Francisco, he became interested in the Hopi Indians and became a blood brother of a chief.”
Upon returning to his native land in 1965, he discovered a book on old English customs, and decided to document the “English” way of life before it became too Americanized, which some saw as a concern in the face of social changes sweeping the country. Ray-Jones made numerous photo trips during the next several years (often accompanied by his wife Anna or Philip), capturing the peculiar and amusing intensity of the English at play.
Channeling Fellini’s satiric instincts and Renoir’s visual poetry, Ray-Jones mined his particular vein of tragi-comic subject matter at carnivals and dances, folk festivals and beauty contests, dog shows and society events. He photographed working class families vacationing at seaside resorts like Margate and Brighton, and the privileged classes unwinding in the rarefied milieux of Eton and Ascot. In an era when street life was far more spirited and uninhibited, Ray-Jones bore witness to countless mini-dramas played out on England’s public stage, often with a sardonic eye and always with deep-seated compassion.
Sadly, Ray-Jones did not live to see the publication of the monograph he had long envisioned. Philip says, “The day before he died I saw him in hospital, a few hours after he had seen the Managing Director of Thames & Hudson. He said that T & H had agreed to publish a book. He thought he had a couple of photos (these were his words) he quite liked, and he had been given nine months (by his doctors), which would give him time to take the rest.”
Ray-Jones died from leukemia in 1972; his book A Day Off appeared in 1974. The power and originality of his vision has endured beyond that of many longer-lived artists. The National Media Museum in Bradford, England, which houses his archive, included Ray-Jones in its “The Lives of Great Photographers” exhibition in 2011 (which subsequently toured Scotland), proof, if any were needed, that his work continues to speak to successive generations of viewers and photographers.
In this exclusive interview, Anna Ray-Jones (now a Vice President at Donley Communications in New York) talks about her late husband’s approach to the medium.
How did Tony’s years in America affect him personally and as a photographer?
It was a tremendous catalyst. Alexey Brodovitch was a sort of father figure, muse and mentor all rolled into one. He had very radical ideas about visual language, visual capacities and the role of photography, and he had extremely high standards for the projects that he worked on. Brodovitch kick-started Tony’s vision, he sparked him, he urged him to investigate the work of people like Cartier-Bresson, Brassai and Atget.
What were his feelings about America?
He was turned on to it. He found it liberating. Because of its class system, Tony often said, “England was not a place to be somebody.” America was more fluid. Career momentum was more accessible. The beginning of his photographic career dovetailed with an explosion of interest in documentary photography in the United States. America was an exciting place to be, it was a transformative place to be and it was a place to get things done.
Working there seems to have sharpened his skill set.
Yes, he arrived back in England as a fairly sophisticated photographer, and at a time when things were popping in terms of the transformation of English culture. He came back with a lot of good influences, a lot of stimulus, a lot of drive.
How did Tony help to change British photography and attitudes about how the medium could be used?
Tony was very vocal about what photography in England could be. It wasn’t at that time considered a creative expression. Granted, photojournalism was on the ascent, but very few people were working independently, going out and shooting stuff. Tony in a very brash way said, “Listen, guys, we can do better than this. We should reconsider photography, reconsider its aesthetics and its purpose, and find out what we can truly do with this medium.”
When he went out shooting, did he try to make himself invisible, like Cartier-Bresson, or were his subjects often aware of his presence?
He had a ratty old raincoat he used to call his “flasher’s raincoat.” He would hide the camera inside, open the coat and click. He was very good at being invisible in that regard. Tony liked very much the way William Hogarth worked. Hogarth, like William Blake, would move amongst the streets of London, sketching and drawing the people he made narratives of. Tony loved Hogarth, because he addressed different sectors of English society. At the upper end of the spectrum he observed and recorded the silliness and corruption of certain middle- and upper-class people. Down on the street, life was pretty ferocious, as you see in Hogarth’s famous Gin Lane print, which is composed like a Tony Ray-Jones photograph.
Tony often used the English class structure to telling effect in his photographs.
The lines of demarcation in England were very visible — on the streets, on the beaches, in the parks and in the workplace in terms of the socioeconomic strata. A book that I love, because I’m from that part of England, is George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, which is a sociological examination of working class people between the wars. It’s a devastating piece of writing. Tony read that avidly, backwards and forwards, and truly began to look at all these strata of English society, and the kind of different images they presented at each level. You can see that in his work.
His photographs also track the transition from traditional English values to the liberalism of the so-called “swinging sixties.” Was he acutely aware of this?
I think it was more organic; he was more interested in the visual notations of what reflected certain English values. English society at the time was so stratified that values visually expressed across the spectrum were quite rich. In certain ways they could also be quite negative. There’s his portrait of the Eton boys, which just oozes entitlement. Yet this photograph also suggests that there’s a kind of price to pay for that, even though your parents are wealthy.
Beyond the humor and offbeat visual poetry in his work, there’s a deep streak of compassion for the little guy.
Yes, he did have a great feeling for the underdog. However, I don’t think it was until he was taking pictures of the English at the seaside that he became aware of how little it took to make people happy. The English seaside back then was populated largely by the British working class. People would save up for their two weeks a year, and go to places like Scarborough or Blackpool. It was a time to let your hair down, kick off your shoes, get sand in your sandwiches and really have a great time. Tony was moved by that, by this taking of small pleasures, of people enjoying themselves knowing they were going back to the bloody awful grind for the rest of the year.
Did he identify with the working class people he photographed?
No, because he didn’t belong to the working class. But he discovered in them a spirited, poetic nature, even if they weren’t at the top of the social tree. He was moved by their appreciation for small things, like going to the beach. Take his photo of the Durham coal miner’s gala. Those old men in Tony’s photograph were young men in the coal pits of the 1930s, working in horrendous physical conditions. It’s amazing that many of them lived to be old men. But they’re taking their pleasure at their festival, and I think there is a real poetry and grace to those people.
What aspects of Tony’s personality do you see in his work?
Certainly humor. He had a very wicked, surreal sense of humor. I think he predates the Pythons. And there’s an exploration in some of the images that have to do with his background. He once photographed boys at Victoria Station going off to board at Christ Hospital School, where Tony went as a child, and at which he was incredibly miserable. Revisiting those kind of experiences in his photos might have had some kind of healing capacity. But Tony was never a big psychological person. It wasn’t like, “I’m going to photograph this guy because it will be super-Freudian.” It was just basic human stuff.
Do you have any particular favorites among his pictures?
I love the Glyndebourne picture of a couple in formal dress picnicking near a field of cows. And there’s a picture of a man at a Chatham May Queen festival: It’s raining, and he has his raincoat spread out sheltering three little girls, who are dressed up in their costumes. They’re all laughing, like it’s great fun to stand there in the rain. There’s something very joyous about that picture, about that kind of spontaneous generosity and people’s delight in each other.
All photographs courtesy of the National Media Museum/Anna Ray-Jones. Our sincere thanks to Anna Ray-Jones and Philip Ray-Jones, and to Brian Liddy, Curator of Collections Access at the NMeM, for their invaluable help in producing this article. To learn more about Ray-Jones’ work, please visit www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk.