Isn’t it the case that we’re permanently on the cusp of changing times, stranded between memory and the unknown?
It may seem obvious, but we rarely behave as if we believe it. Instead, we often see ourselves as having just clambered onto a historical plateau, as if the universe’s 13.8 billion years were designed to get us to precisely this point – as if skinny jeans, pulled pork and the iPhone 6 were the ultimate expression of the human spirit and destined to be with us for the next 1,000 years.
Tony Ray-Jones, however, was a photographer who could feel the sand shifting beneath his feet. Not just because he took so many pictures at the seaside, but also because he had a sense that the England in which he existed wasn’t long for this world.
It was 1966 and Ray-Jones had just returned from the States. He was English but his years studying and working around New Haven and New York had introduced him to a tradition of non-commercial street photography which was much less established back at home. He’d been away, but now he was back, and he could see that customs and behaviours that had once seemed eternal were about to vanish. As he told Creative Camera in 1968, “For me there is something very special about the English ‘way of life’ and I wish to record it from my particular point of view before it becomes Americanised and disappears.”
If that statement sounds a little Last Night of the Proms, the exhibition Only in England at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery – toured by the National Media Museum and the Science Museum’s Media Space – will set you straight. The Ray-Jones photographs on display (taken between 1966 and 1969) aren’t about pomp and arrogance; they are fleeting dissections of a suspended post-war world. The elderly are Victorian while the children have their eyes on the moon, but together they share their bandaged country as it tips towards the 1970s’ stuttering class war.
Ray-Jones’s subjects, as represented here, were most commonly the carnivals and ballrooms, the seafronts and galas where atomised individuals stepped through traditional routines. Held on a skin of silver halide, these people of almost half a century ago are immersed in grim-faced and chilly disappointment, enjoying elasticated, tucked-in English pastimes where stoicism and pleasure are more or less the same.
Ray-Jones died young, aged just 30, in 1972. If he spent much of those final few years gently lifting England’s lacy hem as it paddled in the shallows, the photographer with whom he shares this show had his camera pointing at its buttoned-up breast pocket. Living in Hebden Bridge for five years in the 1970s, Martin Parr documented the life of the town and surrounding Calder Valley; its traditional chapel-focused community life was already in decline while its nascent scented-candle industry had yet to make its mark.
The resulting images, collected under the title The Non-Conformists, show Parr establishing his now-celebrated observational style under the influence of Ray-Jones, still working within the documentary tradition of deeply-grained monochrome reportage. Like Ray-Jones, Parr has come to be known for his examinations of the English seaside resort, but here his subject is stone-built and landlocked, a world of baptist chapels, buffet teas and brass bands.
Printed larger than the Ray-Jones photographs, Parr’s images often seem to encroach on their subjects more closely, born more from a fellow citizen’s community spirit rather than a visitor’s fascination – albeit a citizen with camera in an age when daily documentation was far from usual. It’s well known that when Parr joined the famous Magnum photographic agency in 1994, some of its socially committed members complained that his work was sneering and exploitative. Even his most vociferous advocates might agree that there’s something in his work since the 1980s that magnifies the grotesque. But there’s no sense of that in this show. Here, he catches the fading of an age that’s determinedly frugal and dignified – along with the hint of something shorter-skirted round the corner – with evident respect and restraint.
While the Walker’s special exhibition spaces aren’t enormous, this is a densely packed and mesmerising show that swallowed a couple of hours of my time. Its final third is devoted to previously unpublished Ray-Jones photos selected and printed by Parr. This is Parr paying tribute to his predecessor, adding comments here and there that illuminate Ray-Jones’s skill and method.
We are reminded that, in a time before photoshop, the conjuring of photographic prints required a hands-on magician, someone who could manipulate light at its source in order to bring out detail and add depth where required. A huge display of contact sheets hints at the richness of the Ray-Jones archive, while notebook pages reveal a man deep in conversation with himself about where his photography should be going; clearly, he was thoughtful and disciplined, determined to live up to his self-imposed dictum: “don’t take boring pictures”.
To my eye, there aren’t any boring pictures in this exhibition. Time always adds layers of fascination to documentary photographs, and there are worlds to be remembered or imagined in every image on display. Though with so much to enjoy – there are more than 100 pictures, with a potential short story to be written about every one of them – my instinct is to refrain from picking out specific works. It is the complete anthology that satisfies rather than the telling of an individual tale.
So go and see Only in England for yourself. It’s a wonderful opportunity to peer into a recently passed analogue kingdom full of caravans and deckchairs, rainmates and pac-a-macs, where haunted dancehalls echo to The Last Waltz and cafés offer “TEAS, SANDWICHES, COFFEES” without a misplaced apostrophe in sight.
It was a changing world, that’s true. But it was ever thus, and all those things that you do won’t look so routine in 50 years’ time. Because as Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr remind us, there really is no such thing as the mundane.
What: Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr
Where: Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
Until: June 7, 2015