With a month left to see the free exhibition Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr at The Beaney, Visitor Services Officer Sam Hurn assesses another possible eccentricity particular to the English – always thinking you can do the same as the professionals.
Photography exhibitions are a peculiar thing. I have worked and visited hundreds of different exhibitions and a common sensation always arises below the surface of my appreciation of the work before me. I can do better than this. Now I can’t say why this always occurs, yet I always compare the work before me with what can be found within my family albums gathering dust at home or hovering surreally above me in the digital atmosphere in which we live.
To me this is a particularly English thing to do. Whether your favourite team is playing badly, we say we can do better. If politicians make a decision, we say we can do better. The same is often said of art (especially modern art) and photography is so easily placed into this category through the many different ways of taking photographs in the modern world. As a museum professional, I’ve objectively tried to think about this emotional response that I imagine is shared by others. I’ve narrowed my answer as to why this exhibition is not your family album to three things; Truth, Dedication and Acclaim.
Blackpool, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum
Beauty contestants, Southport, Merseyside, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones
Initially I would like to state that the Truth in photography is a very complex issue, written about by scholars, bloggers and enthusiasts alike. The staging of photographs in art or at home is debated in every photograph. In this exhibition, the photographs of Tony Ray-Jones (1941-1972) and Martin Parr (1952- ) are natural scenes but look like they could have been staged. Parr is quoted as saying ‘with photography, I like to create fiction out of reality. I try and do this by taking society’s natural prejudices and giving them a twist’. This is what separates art from the family album. The Truth behind it goes beyond the realm of the family and gives rise to societal and human issues with an implied connection to all viewers, not just those in the family circle who can recognise the importance of family pictures.
Another difference between the photography on the walls of The Beaney and those at home is the dedication that went into the planning, execution and production of the images. Before even entering the Special Exhibition Gallery where the photographs are displayed, is a glass case filled with proof of the dedication needed to produce quality images. Amongst the objects is an unassuming scrap of paper written by Ray-Jones, telling himself to capture the ‘perfect’ image.
This desire for perfection is shared by the some of you when taking your snaps for Instagram or photo frames. Though rarely have I seen people dedicate their lives to profiling people as a society by taking thousands of photos over a number of years to document a particular time, place or group of people. Parr spent five years immersing himself in the community at Hebden Bridge (a small mill town in West Yorkshire with a population today of 4,500) in order to document the decline of traditional life, of which one year was devoted to a small Methodist chapel with 10 -12 regular patrons. For most people, photography is an instantaneous occurrence. For Ray-Jones and Parr, the process takes hard work, a long time and dedicating your life to the production of an end product worth viewing and viewing again.
Mayor of Todmorden’s inaugural banquet, 1977 by Martin Parr © Martin ParrMagnum
Finally, for photography to get anywhere near an exhibition it needs acclaim from fans, critics and other professional photographers. Martin Parr first came into contact with the work of Tony Ray-Jones whilst at Manchester Polytechnic studying photography. A video within the exhibition explains how although never meeting, these two photographers were on a similar path strewn with similar desires, experiences and acquaintances such as Bill Jay – the editor of the immensely influential magazine Creative Camera (1968–1969). Externally, Ray-Jones died before he could reach critical acclaim but the influence on later photographers and those who knew him has left a powerful legacy. His work has since 1993 been held by the National Media Museum in Bradford. Parr has won many awards and honorary degrees following his 40 year career, which saw him permanently switch to colour photography from the 1980s and brought about his emergence into the public eye.
These black and white photographs deserve their place as the focus of an exhibition. Displaying the work of a photographer in the prime of his life whose career was tragically cut short alongside the early work of an influenced photographer who would go on to have a distinguished career shows more than a family album. It shows life blurred with fiction. It shows dedication to the elusive traits of the English. It shows that hard work produces results.
My photography is no comparison. Is yours?
Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr is on display in the Special Exhibitions Gallery at The Beaney House of Art & Knowledge
18 High Street, Canterbury CT1 2RA
Admission: Pay What You Can