A Day Off: an English journal

His mother says that when he was sixteen he was quite definite that he would start making films when he was thirty. A Christmas card for 1971 says that he hoped to go to film school but did not know whether it would be possible. He was by then back in America freelancing and also a Visiting Lecturer to the Department of Photography, San Francisco Art Institute.

Butlins, 1968, by Tony Ray-Jones ©NMeM

Anna Ray-Jones confirms that he would have begun to make films. A subject that he would almost certainly have treated was the plight of the American Indian. Through his wife he had become very interested in the Hopi Nation in Arizona. David Monongye, an energetic Hopi of 89, had become a kind of spiritual father to them both. And Tony planned a great deal of photography to expose not only the injustices they have suffered but also the richness of their culture. After hearing of Tony Ray-Jones’s death David Monongye wrote to Anna. ‘Don’t live in your grief … We are not alone in this world. The Great One who moves all things must have need of Tony. He is not dead but has taken off his earthly overcoat.’

In The British Journal of Photography, 28 March 1969, my review of his first exhibition ended with this paragraph. It contains remarks of his which seem important: ‘Comment about his individual pictures seem superfluous. They either have an inner truth and magic that works on you. as it certainly does on me. or they don’t. I find myself thinking of two remarks he made. On composition-“you always hoped you could do without it: but when you do the picture invariably falls to pieces and won’t stand up”. And “my thing is that I’m not particularly interested in ‘beautiful’ photographs”. He is obviously interested in very complex images but however complex they stand up and hold together like a Bruegel painting. He quietly remarked something that is full of significance: “I’m concerned with pushing images to the edge of sanity.” For my part I find they have a strange beauty and a great inherent truth-to-life. I think we are looking at the early work of a great photographer.’ Now that one knows the little time that was left to him one can only marvel at the force and vitality that he pressed into his pictures. Several of these will pass not only into the history and development of photography but will remain as a permanent tribute to someone who said: “I’m not an artist. I don’t like the snob connotation of the word. I’m not specially sensitive and I wouldn’t tolerate the stigma. I would like to be a journalist like George Orwell or as Hogarth was in his medium”.

If you talk to friends of Tony it is his warmth and his good nature that are remembered quite as much as his radical opinions. This remark of David Burch is somehow typical and ought to be shared. ‘I have had many conversations with Tony but the best memory is of the man who said. “Want to see some snaps, Dave?” opened an unlikely yellow box and produced magic. A generous friend. a great arriver on the doorstep out of nowhere. and devoted to the sad, funny, human race. The compassion shows in his work.

Tony Ray-Jones’s ashes lie on the slopes of the Luberon in Provence, which he loved, and just above Oppede Le Vieux, the last residence of Alexei Brodovitch, whom he revered. His pictures will continue to speak for themselves for they are a living part of what he wished to accomplish. This was to make a statement. ‘A statement so powerful that it would make people change their ideas and attitudes.‘ To make this a reality was his hope, and his aim, and the truth-to-life by which he lived.

Boarding House, Newquay, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones ©NMeM. The influence of Hopper’s paintings is clear in this image.

I originally wrote this Introduction as a brief biography for The British Journal of Photography Annual 1973. At that time we could not use enough of Tony’s photographs to give the impression of his true style which A Day Off now abundantly provides. I am particularly glad that it is sub-titled ‘An English Journal’ for this suggests the particular virtues of Tony Ray-Jones’s photography. These include a pungent and rare Englishness of viewpoint, and an identity with the subject that is wry, ironic, but always affectionate. A little like those old-fashioned English sweets full of curiously strong flavours: paregoric, aniseed, clove, liquorice or that powerful winter lozenge known as the ‘Fisherman’s Friend’. The strong, lingering flavour peculiar to them is pleasant but far from delicate.

‘Journal’, too, is right. He was desperately anxious to note down in his pictures a side of life which he saw and understood but which he knew was undergoing the inevitable and quickening erosion of social change. He documented in an unaffected and straightforward manner the often unconscious humour of the English talent for playing life so seriously in its lighter moments. He caught the fun, the pathos and the irony of England right through the stratification of social differences. His accuracy, his truly comic eye – a comic eye that belongs in a great tradition – and, above all, his ability to reflect with warmth and pungency the true flavour of people: all this A Day Off demonstrates admirably.

Tony Ray-Jones has left us. But A Day Off is full of Tony: his viewpoint, his humour and his warmth. He has left us a photographic testament that is wholly characteristic. Time will, I am certain, merely deepen its relish and enhance its value as a true and graphic portrait of the English social scene.

© Ainslie Ellis / Thames & Hudson

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