'Imagination will take you everywhere'
The photographer Tony Ray-Jones once said that “Photography can be a mirror and reflect life as it is, but I also think it is possible to walk, like Alice, through the looking-glass and find another world with the camera.” For me this summary encapsulates the spirit and allure of photography; being able to both capture reality and create fantasy. Ray-Jones was a whizz behind the lens and has inspired many of todays most eminent image-makers, including the Magnum documentary photographer, Martin Parr. The Science Museum’s latest exhibition, Only in England, is a rare gem which displays both the work of Parr and Ray-Jones – thus highlighting Ray-Jones’ influence on Parr, whilst depicting the parallels between their imagery and similarities in subject choice. But the question is; does their work reflect life as it is, or does it present a whole new world? I took on the persona of Alice, leapt into the exhibition and through the looking-glass.
This pairing is undeniably a match made in heaven. Both photographers explore social observations of Britain with images full of narrative, humour and truth. The first room of the exhibition is filled with Ray-Jones’ images of quintessential England during the late 1960’s; a time he thought the traditional customs of yesteryear were dying out in favour of shiny, new Americanisation. However I think the eccentricities which his photographs depict, are still very much prevalent today – the elderly couple in formal attire picnicking among the cows at Glyndebourne would hardly look out-of-place today; perhaps a foreigner would think it a weird sight, but to us Brits it’s just the norm. It is these photographs of the English at leisure which had a profound impact on Parr and lead him to produce his most renowned collection of images, The Non-Conformists. Taken during the 1970’s, these photographs make the viewer question our judgement on particular groups within society, yet at the same time Parr presents us with a humorous and satirical commentary on our culture and examines how we present ourselves.
Tony Ray-Jones initially trained as a graphic designer before becoming a photojournalist (his work has featured in the Sunday Times and Observer Magazines), which explains his ability to construct a unique composition and layer small, yet entwined narratives to create an eye-catching image. His love of comedy made him an expert at shooting bizarre and comical social interactions – he somehow manages to put a spin on mundane everyday life by catching fleeting sparks of the absurd. His photographs successfully portray the quirky eccentricities and traditions that Britain is still renowned for today; soggy picnics on a windswept beach, stripping off as soon as there is a glimpse of sunshine, the importance of community, the stiff upper lip, and of course the momentous occasion of afternoon tea and cake. My favourite aspect of his imagery is the multiple narratives which are embedded within each shot – each person represents a different story – which draws the viewer deeper into the image, as they explore specific elements and then appreciate the image as a whole.
The second part of the exhibition is dominated with Martin Parr’s photographs documenting the tightly knit community and landscape of Hebden Bridge in Surrey. Parr says he likes to create his own little world based on reality and these images do exactly that; Hebden Bridge is a microcosm of the whole country – a slice of Britain with all its traditional ways of life and idiosyncrasies of the English people. Irony, contradiction and ambiguity are key ingredients in this collection, which is quite a satirical look at how we live our lives. There are many images of Silver Jubilee street parties – some basking in sun, most plagued by the miserable British weather; there is a wedding photograph complete with beaming newlyweds and an over-bearing mother of the bride; a Baptist Chapel field day with crazed youngsters running to the finish line, and an anniversary tea party filled with cake-munching old women dressed in their Sunday-best. Each picture stirs a sense of pride and nostalgia within me; this is an England of the past, in which everyone is tied together by their community. Yes, both Parr and Ray-Jones mock our English eccentricities, but both present the truth; raw, unembellished and engaging.