Ray-Jones by Peter Marshall

Peter Marshall, by Tony Mayne.

Peter Marshall is a London-based photographer and educator whose excellent documentary work may be seen here and  here.
He also runs the extremely informative My London Diary site.
This essay is taken from a presentation given by him in Poland in 2005.

Ray-Jones’s life and career was tragically cut short by his sudden decline and death from leukemia in 1972, aged only 30, when he had completed only one major project, ‘The English Seen’. His illness had only been diagnosed two months earlier and he had been photographing up to a couple of weeks before he died.

Contact Sheet Portraits of Tony Ray-Jones, 1970, by Ainslie-Ellis, ©National Media Museum SSPL, courtesy of Anna Ray-Jones

I never knew Tony Ray-Jones. I think I met him once, an outraged photographer contributing to an animated discussion at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, but at the time I had no idea who he was. I do know one of his friends and co-workers, the American photographer John Benton-Harris, who made his home in England many years ago, and I also worked as a photography examiner with Russell Roberts, now in charge of our British national photography museum, whose recent (2006) book and show on Ray-Jones has aroused much new interest in his work.

Ray-Jones was a perfectionist in many ways, but he never quite mastered the technical side of getting correct exposure in those pre-automatic days. The Leica M camera he used was entirely manual; most photographers were proud (not always with reason) of their ability to judge exposures by eye, though some kept a Weston meter in their pocket and occasionally checked it to see if it worked. Leica did make a clip-on meter, but its main use was that it made the shutter speed dial easier to turn. Ray-Jones often had to work at a speed that did not allow careful measurements, and John assures me his negatives are a nightmare to print.

Tony Ray-Jones was the youngest son of English artist Raymond Ray-Jones, a meticulous painter and etcher who had no time for the modernists. Raymond Ray-Jones died when Tony was only a few months old, and he grew up looked after by his mother and her parents, and with help from the ‘Artists’ Orphans Fund’. After several miserable years at a curiously archaic boarding school he studied design at the London School of Printing. Photography was a very minor part of his course, and it was only in his third year of the four-year course he bought his first decent camera, a Rolleicord. Most sources suggest that while there he saw photography merely as a way of making pictures to use in his design work.

His photography tutor was the great Bill Brandt’s younger brother (and occasional model) Rolf Brandt. Brandt showed work by his elder brother to his students, and appears to have suggested typical student projects on subjects such as markets, fairs, parks and events. Ray-Jones’s work at this stage was good but not exceptional for a student at this level. Perhaps at his tutor’s prompting he did take some work to show Bill Brandt, who apparently looked at them for a few minutes and told him to “get closer”.

Ray-Jones, still bent on a career as a designer, applied for and was accepted on a two-year MFA at Yale, where his tutors included Josef Albers. The portfolio that gained him a place was photographic – pictures taken with the Rolleicord, holding it above his head crouching on the floor of a taxi being driven through Algiers.

Cliffs at Eastbourne, by Tony Ray-Jones ©National Media Museum

In America during his first year at Yale that he came head on with a very different attitude to photography to that in Britain. In Britain it was largely taught as a trade, but in the USA it was taken seriously a medium, and one about which some people felt very strongly. Infected by this enthusiasm Ray-Jones, bought a 35mm Leica and started taking pictures, and photography began to take over his life. 

At the end of his first year at Yale, he took a year off from formal studies and moved to New York. Here he attended the sessions of Alexey Brodovitch’s Design Laboratory, and also met many of the best known photographers of the era in the circle around Brodovitch. While in New York he also managed to get a couple of commercial assignments, producing colour pictures that show his strong sense of colour and design but give no hint of his later personal work.

Among those he met and worked with photographing on the streets of New York were Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand. Meyerowitz tells the story of how he was photographing the 1963 St Patrick’s Day Parade with Ray-Jones and the Polish photographer Ryszard Horowitz (one of the youngest survivors of Auschwitz who emigrated to the USA in 1959, later becoming a pioneer of special effects photography), when they saw another photographer, “a man jumping around, bobbing and weaving, twisting and turning, dancing” with his camera, and realised it must be Henri Cartier-Bresson. The others pushed Meyerowitz to approach him, and although Cartier-Bresson initially denied it was him, finally he agreed and arranged to have a coffee with them after the event..

Ray-Jones returned to New Haven and completed his final year at Yale, before moving back to New York and working briefly as a designer then devoting himself full-time to photography. In his final year at Yale and after his return to New York, he began to produce personal work that reflected his own views as a photographer.

Boat Race, London 1968, by Tony Ray-Jones ©National Media Museum

In 1965 (John Benton-Harris says more likely late 1966 despite the what books may say), probably because he couldn’t renew his visa, Ray-Jones had to leave America and return to England, intending to go back to the USA as soon as possible. He remained based in London for the next five years, working on his major personal project on the English, as well as travelling elsewhere mainly for commercial work.

Little of his personal work was published during his lifetime – a couple of small portfolios in ‘Creative Camera’ and the odd image here and there. His commercial work in other magazines is occasionally interesting, but it often reflects his training as a designer rather than his own photographic vision, and is at times clearly derivative. Assigned by ‘Opera News’ to photograph ‘Britten Country’ – Aldeburgh in Suffolk, England where composer Benjamin Britten lived, wrote works such as his ‘Peter Grimes’ and founded one of the first great annual music festivals, his images were clearly modelled on the work of that more famous English photographer, Bill Brandt. Looking at the spread you can almost imagine Ray-Jones working with a copy of Brandt’s 1951 publication ‘Literary Britain’ in one hand and camera in the other.

Ray-Jones always made a very clear distinction between personal and commercial work, at times publicly and rudely criticising other photographers for ‘selling out’; it was an abruptness that ended friendships with several well-known photographers. Meyerowitz, perhaps never really a close friend, was one of those to suffer in this way.

Ray-Jones had decided his personal project was to be on the English at leisure. It was on a visit to Ireland in 1966 with his closest friend from Brodovitch’s workshops, the Dublin-born photographer Alen MacWeeney, that gained its final direction. (Mac Weeney had gone to New York in 1961 after a brief spell on a Dublin newspaper). Travelling with them was Artelia Court, a young anthropologist and folklorist, who lent Ray-Jones the newly published ‘The Country Life Book of Old English Customs’, with text and pictures by Roy Christian. The study of old English customs and traditions, often quaint and quirky, became a key element of his project, providing a number of fine pictures.

Two years later he produced a book dummy, ‘England by the Sea’ but this failed to attract a publisher either in Britain, or in New York Three years after his death, a book on this project was produced: ‘A Day Off: an English Journal by Tony Ray-Jones’ (1974). Its sections were labelled: THE SEASIDE, SUMMER CARNIVALS, DANCERS, LONDON and SOCIETY.

This posthumous work established him as one of the finest of the new ‘street photographers’ to come out of the New York hot-house (stoked by Alexey Brodovitch) in the wake of Robert Frank, although he was also influenced by European photographers, notably Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassai. It is a measure of the quality of his work and the regard in which he was held by many fellow photographers that a leading French photography magazine was later to refer to this English photographer as ‘England’s Cartier-Bresson’. Hyperbole of course; what we see in his work is not the maturity of the master but a potential seldom fully realised, splendid though many of his pictures in ‘A Day Off’ are.

Margate, Kent, by Tony Ray-Jones ©National Media Museum

Ray-Jones did more than take photographs in England, he gave the whole of British photographic culture a much-needed boot up the backside. He brought back from New York a brashness and an enthusiasm for the photography that was unknown in England. In 1968, having completed much of the English project, he introduced himself to the editor of Britain’s only really serious photographic magazine by announcing “Your magazine’s shit, but I can see you are trying. You just don’t know enough, so I am here to help you.” It was his photographs that convinced Bill Jay that he was worth listening to, and Creative Camera published them.

Ray-Jones took Jay to New York, and together they went to see Garry Winogrand, John Szarkowski, Robert Frank, Lisette Model, Diane Arbus, W Eugene Smith, Andre Kertesz and more, while he tried unsuccessfully to sell his book on the English to New York publishers. His ideas, and this learning experience for Jay led to Creative Camera, under Jay and later Peter Turner, being the catalyst for a vital independent photography movement in the UK in the 1970s, and coincided with my own real introduction to photography.

One of the problems in writing about Ray-Jones is that recollections of him are filtered through the haze of time and a general wish not to say ill of the dead, as well; and often a wish to associate the witness more closely with fame than the facts allow.

The always outspoken Ray-Jones aroused hate in many of photography’s fragile egos, trenchantly and publicly dismissing most of the British photographic establishment with comments inherited from Brodovitch such as “phoney-baloney” and “so you want to be a wedding photographer.”

It was this kind of arrogant behaviour – not his photography – that led to the defeat of his Magnum application in 1967. They passed his photography but failed his character. Three years later when he applied again, the lack-lustre work he submitted was perhaps intended as a comment on this.

His forthrightness made enemies, but he also made many strong friends, particularly among younger photographers who admired his ideas and often emulated his pictures. It is easy to get the impression of Ray-Jones as a lone warrior wandering the towns and cities of England Leica in hand, ploughing his own peculiar furrow. It wasn’t like that. He hung out and worked most of the time with other photographers, sharing their experiences, talking about what each was trying to achieve and comparing their results. He met American John Benton-Harris, who settled here early in the sixties, in 1967 and Benton-Harris was there with him making his own pictures when Ray-Jones took a number of his better-known images.

Ray-Jones was also noted for his stinginess, (the kind of guy who would never pay for anything if it could be avoided and insisted on restaurant bills being scrupulously divided up so he only paid for what he had eaten). But to other photographers he could be extremely generous with his time and advice, giving long and detailed criticisms and other help. One who benefited from this was Sylvester Jacobs, a young black American photographer who was working on a similar project to his (though very differently) published in 1976 as ‘Portrait of England’

A second book on Ray-Jones appeared in 1990, by Richard Ehrlich, giving us better reproductions of many of his pictures and also some useful insights into his photography and working methods.

Erlich quotes some interesting sections from his notebooks, in particular a list headed APPROACH, probably made while he was discovering the medium in New York, which, as Erlich suggests, it could serve as a primer for a street photographer. It reads to me more like notes from a lecture he attended than Ray-Jones’s own thoughts:

GET IN CLOSER (USE 50MM LENS) {or maybe ‘LESS’, unclear from notes}
WATCH CAMERA SHAKE (shoot 250sec or above)

Clearly there are some things here he didn’t take much notice of, with some very complex images, often taken with wide-angle lenses and at rather slower shutter speeds. And although not all of his pictures are taken from eye level, many are, with a clear avoidance of unusual angles.

It is hard to photograph in England without being aware of his work. Last month I photographed one of the events he photographed in 1966, the London May Queen Parade in Hayes, Kent. I don’t think either of us had a particularly good day.

Tony Ray-Jones was a fine photographer, and his work inspired many of the younger British photographers, but he was much more than that. He introduced us to much that had happened and was happening in photography in America, to the work of many fine photographers that was either unknown or largely misunderstood here. Through his contributions largely behind the scenes to Creative Camera, he set an agenda for many photographers in Britain for the 1970s and beyond.

Among the key figures he identified for us were Walker Evans, Bill Brandt, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, although there were many more who came to our attention because he persuaded Creative Camera to publish their work. Evans was of course already known here for his portraits of sharecroppers [with text by James Agee in ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’] but this was regarded as simple documentary work. Brandt, who had lived and worked in Britain since around 1930 was also well-known, especially for his work in Picture Post and other magazines but again largely misunderstood, while the others were largely unheard of. Ray-Jones opened a doorway to a whole new world of photography.

 © Peter Marshall, from a talk given at FotoArtFestival, Bielsko-Biala, Poland, June 2005.