Tony Ray-Jones was one of Britain’s greatest contemporary documentary photographers. With a retrospective of his work visiting the Portfolio Gallery, Beatrice . Colin considers the contribution of i
this prickly character.
‘1 really want to go and photograph the Whitstable Oyster Festival. l’ll bet you someone will be dressed up as a shell. And it will inevitably rain, but despite that people will be making every effort to be cheerful, and in the midst of that there will be some
Tony Ray-Jones died of leukaemia in 1972, aged 30. Although his career was tragically brief, he is
now regarded as a pioneer, and his studies of Britain
and America have had a lasting inﬂuence on
documentary photography as a whole.
Although no technical expert, his teasing empathy mixed with an outsider’s viewpoint caught something of the character of a nation. With Mike Leigh‘s eye for a comic situation and a visible admiration for the work of Bunuel and Fellini, Ray-Jones's studies are beautifully observed documents of the isolation of
the human condition.
Ray-Jones was born in England and won a scholarship to Yale, New Haven, to study graphic design while still in his teens. In pursuit of his own
large social scenes.
personal vision and an original approach, he took a year off and headed to New York to study with Alexey Brodovitch. one of America‘s most inﬂuential ﬁgures in design and photography. There. he learned the importance of surprise and the value of uncompromising criticism from a teacher whose
' biggest compliment was to linger over work for a moment without saying anything. He also witnessed the development of ‘street photography‘, pioneered by Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander among others. which focused on the unpredictability and chaos of
Following their example, he was drawn to parades, markets and public events where he could observe people and the way in which they related to their surroundings. But while other photographers were capturing a narrative in single images, Ray-Jones's studies focused on people doing nothing, lost in concentration or caught in private pauses.
In I965, he moved back to Britain in search of a subject, ‘to lift the mask‘ on England. A critic of the social structure and a man with decidedly left-wing attitudes, Ray-Jones believed that in all strata of society there was always someone slipping off the rails. He looked for ‘innocent betrayal‘, and was attracted to situations or people who were obviously out of kilter but who didn‘t realise.
Ray-Jones decided to put together a body of work on the English in their spare time. Combining hard- nosed street photography with a subtle irony and sense of humour, his images of picnics, seaside holidays, beauty contests and days at the races, taken between 1967—70. reveal a country which is both hilarious and aloof; eccentric and down-to-earth.
As well as pinpointing a universal truth. Ray- Jones‘s work reﬂected his own personality. He was a ' man who was famous for his meanness, arrogance , and bitchiness, and was one of the few photo- journalists not admitted to Magnum because he wasn’t ‘nice‘ enough. Others were clearly bafﬂed by . his character as he was also enthusiastic, funny and
occasional immensely generous. And although he
claimed he was as puzzled by what was going on in
; his subjects’ minds as anyone else, his studies are detached yet intimate echoes of his own eccentricity.
‘l have tried to show the sadness and the humour and the gentle madness that prevails in people.‘ he
I ‘Photography can be a mirror and reﬂect life as it is, i but I also think that perhaps it is possible to walk, like Alice, through a looking-glass. and ﬁnd another kind of world with a camera.‘
Ton y Ray-Jones; A Retrospective is at Portfolio
Gallery Sat 14 Jun—[2 Feb.
_ Light up
To find an exhibition which genuinely offers an uncynical and engaging creativity is a rare thing. That it should be found tucked away on the tracks of the Tramway is some cause for celebration.
The lantern Arcade, a sculptural installation made by Welfare State International in collaboration with Glasgow group ACME Presentations, is a glorious and very relevant exploration of personal and cultural hopes and aspirations expressed through a myriad of symbolic forms.
Welfare State International are perhaps best known for their involvement in the huge scale lantern procession, Glasgow All Lit tip, in 19%. Light is again a central unifying element in The lantern Arcade, on this
occasion however, sound is an equally important bedfeliow; an eclectic mixture of sounds providing an ‘atmospheric envelope’ for the whole.
Four towers symbolising different civilisations dominate the expansive
Tramway space. Each of the paper, wood, or metal towers, entrenched in 1 their parallel trarnlines, represents a
pertinent allegory of civilisations that don’t connect. The metal tower, a
j Duchamp cum Tinguely contraption of bicycle wheels frantically signals to
its neighbour, something resembling The Tower of Babel, but fails to communicate. Elsewhere in the Tramway ‘unlverse’, ‘galaxies’ of lanterns loom in Tramway heaven and bizarre mythological creatures cast deep shadows producing an effect somewhere between a Balinese Shadow Theatre and pantomime. The overall atmosphere created is both intimate and dramatic and magically heightened in the dark.
As well as being a notable sculptural exhibition, The lantern Arcade also provides a fun and imaginitive playground where anyone can join in. This comes as a refreshing antidote to the current climate where everything
it seems, even play, has been turned into a marketable commodity, and much experience oi creativity nothing more than passive consumerism. (Caroline Ednie)
The Lantern Arcade is at Tramway until 24 Jan.
The List l4—27 January I994 49