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Image Credit: Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Only In England: Martin Parr and Tony Ray-Jones

26 September 2013 Mary Howell

As with any established figure in their field, it is always fascinating to be shown what influenced the influential, inspired the inspirational and got the forward thinking thinking. Only In England does just that.

Martin Parr is one of the most published and widely respected photographers in the world. The inaugural exhibition at the Science Museum’s Media Space explores his relationship with Tony Ray-Jones, the lesser-known photographer whose impact upon Parr was both fundamental and profound.

Tony was a non-conformist who disregarded his contemporaries and the style of the 60s, calling photojournalism, advertising and fashion photography “phoney baloney”. Alternatively, he concentrated on the absurdities of everyday life and allowed the subject matter to speak for itself. The un-posed, undirected drama of the street and the seaside alongside the eccentricity of British life was a focus that no one else had embraced in the UK. An aptitude for combining documentary traditions with artistic flare made his photographs truly special, allowing them to communicate the atmosphere that lay outside the frame. Ray-Jones sadly passed away at the age of 30, yet his legacy persists in our photography culture today. This can be seen nowhere more so than in the work of Martin Parr.

A year before his death in 1972, a young Parr was introduced to Tony’s work and began to follow his career. “Two years after that”, Martin told me, “his book The Day Off was published. So I immediately bought this and have nurtured and cherished it ever since. I built up a lot of respect for him and started collecting his prints.”

Although he’s at an established point in his career, Only In England uses Parr’s first major body of work, The Non-Conformists, which is an exploration and celebration of Hebdon Bridge. “It’s appropriate to show it alongside Tony Ray-Jones because it was directly influenced by him. I learnt from him and it makes sense.” This exhibition creates a clear dialogue between their works, making the effect that Tony’s experimental approach had on Martin unmistakeable.

Media Space’s partnership with The National Media Museum gave Parr the opportunity to examine their 2500 strong collection of Ray-Jones vintage contact sheets. Guided by his intuition, Parr isolated many rare and largely unseen prints that pinpoint the virtuosity of this immensely important, yet underrated, British photographer. Unusually, Tony would often take only two or three shots of each scene, rather than the common tens to hundreds. This talent, illustrated by the contact sheets exhibited, gave him the rare ability of knowing where and when a photo existed.

Martin explained that Ray-Jones’ iconic pictures demonstrate what is possible for a photographer to achieve; where every element sings off the page. Openly acknowledging the strong influence on his own practice, he shared with me that Tony’s work is what he aspires to achieve and expressed his eternal gratitude and respect for what Tony did.

One of the nicest qualities of the exhibition is its clear narrative. The relationship between these two men’s work is unambiguous and showcases the roots of a revolutionary period in British photography. Aside from how they slot into history, the way in which they both visually encapsulate the quaint eccentricities of Britain is interesting, charming and most of all fun. This combined with the honest, relatable subject matter makes it an enjoyable exhibition for photography beginners and veterans alike.

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