Ray-Jones: Amazing Perfection

Reproduced here in full, with permission, is the complete text of Ian Walker’s research into perhaps the most iconic of all Tony Ray-Jones’s photographs ‘Beachy Head Boat Trip, 1967’.

This article first appeared in Source magazine in 2004. Together with an article in The Guardian newspaper the same year, it inspired me to start the section of this website devoted to Ray-Jones as so little information about him appeared on the web at that time.
It was recently updated and reproduced in the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition ‘Only in England’, held at The Science Museum London in 2013. It is the version from that catalogue that appears here.

Summer of Love: A photograph by Tony Ray-Jones

I think I have always been half in love with her. As she leans 
back against her lover, eyes closed, absorbed in sensuality
 and oblivious to the people around her, this girl should really
 be in some European art film of the period — by Antonioni or
 Truffaut perhaps — rather than here on a pleasure boat off the 
English coast.

I’ve known this picture now for nearly 40 years. It was a sunny 
day in London in 1974 or 1975 when I walked into a second-
hand bookshop on Great Russell Street, along from the British
 Museum, to find a copy of Tony Ray-Jones’s book A Day Off.
 It was marked down to £1.50 (the original price was £4.75),
 so I bought it.1 I’m not sure if this was my first sight of the 
picture — there was an Arts Council exhibition of Ray-Jones’s
 work called The English Seen going round the country at the 
same time.2 But the version in the book, the second image in,
 is the one I return to and have shown in lectures ever since 
to say something about the decisive moment, traditions in
 documentary, the English seaside and so on.

Of course, it’s not only the young lovers who make this such
 a great picture. They are central to the image, but around 
them are an array of older people, their gazes outward, keen 
it seems to look anywhere other than at this couple in their
 midst. It is this refusal of social interaction which makes
 the picture an acute piece of satire, just as the network of
 divergent gazes makes it visually so satisfying. Part of my 
response to the picture has of course to do with my own age 
and background. I feel I recognise these people — their faces
 are like the ones that gaze out of my own family album from
 the period and, as I look, I assign them characters.

The woman at bottom left with glasses and a worried look 
resembles my Auntie Lil and, in my mind, that is who she becomes.
The old man in the flat cap is an archetypal working-class figure,
 though his check waistcoat, watch chain and tie clip are actually
 rather dressy. At the top, the boat’s captain fulfils his supporting 
role as weathered sea dog quite perfectly. The woman below him is
 another auntie and the placement of her face next to that of the girl 
— tilted in the same direction yet tense, almost a mask — says much
 about age and experience.

To the other side of the couple stands a rather gaunt man, taking
 a drag on his cigarette. Here we are surrounded by all this fresh
 air and it’s time for a fag; defining him by his action, I call him the ‘
smoking man’. Finally, at bottom right, there is another man, whose 
neat white shirt and swept-back grey hair l instinctively read as 
middle rather than working class. He seems to have a contemplative 
look on his face and l’m struck by his resemblance to the English
 painter John Piper.

The title as it was given in A Day Off was ‘Scarborough, 1967′. 
Immediately one imagines the rugged Yorkshire coast off to the 
left as one simultaneously thinks of hippies in San Francisco with
 flowers in their hair. (Somewhere out there, Simon and Garfunkel
are singing the old English ballad Scarborough Fair’.) All that seems 
a long way away from the microcosm of this picture, but one of the 
things going on here (very gently) is a contrast between old English 
repressions and a newer, younger freedom of thought and action.

“lt is often said”, wrote Richard Ehrlich, “that Tony’s great
achievement was to integrate the insights and working methods
 of 1960s American street photography into an essentially English 
approach to English life.”3 It’s instructive, for example, to put this
 picture next to a photograph that Garry Winogrand took at the American Legion Convention in Dallas in I964. The structure is
 very similar in both pictures: a central figure surrounded by others
 who, embarrassed and awkward, look in every direction except at 
the central figure. But the fierce gaze of the man on the ground
 back at the photographer — at us, challenging our own right to gaze
— strikes quite a different tone to Ray-Jones’s picture. Whatever
 embarrassment the people on the boat feel isn’t because a man has 
lost his legs in a war; it’s only because a young couple are being a 
little too affectionate.

In fact, very few people look back in Ray-Jones’ photographs as they 
do in Winogrand’s. This is, in its way, just as disturbing, for it puts us
in the position of perpetual voyeur. Writing this, I am struck by another 
comparison with Winogrand’s series ‘Women Are Beautiful’. 4 Time has 
quite rightly not been kind to those pictures, which seem all too often
 merely to reinforce the power of men to look at women. But isn’t that
 what is happening here? Perhaps what I have desired all this time is 
my own fantasy of this girl, safely unattainable. A perpetual question 
mark hangs over the picture now and I can’t shift this nagging feeling 
that, as Michael Powell once put it, ‘all this filming isn’t healthy’.5

Though I’ve known this picture for a long time, much of what I’ve just
 written hadn’t crystallised until a particular experience renewed and
 then shifted my interest in this picture. It happened in the Insight
 Research Centre in the National Museum of Photography, Film &
Television in Bradford (now the National Media Museum), where I 
had come to look through the Tony Ray-Jones archive for another 
research project.6 The lights are low. I have brought with me my copy
 of A Day Off, and it’s lying open on the table. On a trolley is a pile of 
brown archive boxes. I take the top one off the pile: Box 21, which
contains the negatives and contact sheets for the first half of A Day
 Off. As I start to scan the sheet containing this picture, I am transfixed 
and my larger purpose is set aside for a while.

The first few frames — at the bottom of the contact sheet — are taken
 on dry land in a hall of mirrors. But with frame 7 we are on the boat
 with the familiar cast of characters, though the photographer hasn’t
 decided whom to concentrate on. There is one person here who will
 not make it into the final shot, though her presence is important in the
 other frames. Sitting up on the right is a young girl in a swimsuit and ‘John Piper’ is evidently her father. (Looking back at the chosen shot,
one realises that it is her shoulder and hair that just edge into the 
frame.) Her removal will change the final picture quite a lot. If she 
had been included, the contrast between the young lovers and the 
older characters would not have been so concentrated.

Through to frame 14, Ray-Jones shares his attention between the 
lovers on the left and the father and daughter on the right. Then 
suddenly, in frame 15, it happens. The girl leans back into her 
boyfriend, the camera moves sharply left to centre on them, the little
 girl is lost and Auntie Lil and the captain come into the shot. The
 moment is celebrated on the contact sheet by an orange Chinagraph
 rectangle, a cross and a tick. It is the shot and it will be printed nearly 
full frame.

It’s hard in retrospect not to see this as a climactic resolution and
 to think of all the other shots as leading up to and away from this
 moment. But the simultaneous presence of multiple images on
the contact sheet democratises the process and makes visible a 
continuing experiment in looking. Here are 37 equally sized images
 laid out for inspection, each as weighted as the next. With the sort of 
picture-making process that Tony Ray-Jones followed, any image is 
potentially the one to make it out of the pack and he wouldn’t have
 known what he had got until he saw it later. Meanwhile, the film rolls
 on and we aren’t halfway through it yet.

The camera is turned vertically for the next six shots and Ray-
Jones shifts between the young couple and the father and daughter,
still perhaps hedging his bets. With frame 22, though, the shot is
 horizontal again and all turn their backs to the camera to look over to
the right. A lighthouse has appeared on the edge of frame; it is striped
 and sits in front of a row of white cliffs. This is our first clue that we
 aren’t where we think we are — this isn’t Scarborough but Beachy 
Head. These aren’t northerners from the mill towns of Yorkshire but
 southerners — trippers from London perhaps. In fact, painstaking 
research by Ruth Kitchin at the National Media Museum showed that
 much of the captioning in A Day Off is wildly wrong; of the first 50
 pictures in the book only 13 are correctly captioned, a success rate 
that seems almost wilfully low.7

The appearance of the coastline also tells us something about the
 gazes of the people in frame 15. I have previously read them as
 looking away from the couple; in fact they are looking at something
— across to the left, at the cliffs. (The only exception, aside from the
lovers, is the captain, who has been here many times before and
 keeps his eyes in the direction of his boat.) Moreover, if now, in the 
second half of the film, the boat is travelling west to east along the 
coast, then in the first half we had been going east to west with the 
open sea out to the right. And therefore, we must have started out 
from a port to the east of Beachy Head.

This is confirmed when we get back to dry land in frames 32 to 35.
 Ray-Jones is now on shore, photographing the rear of the boat which 
is still crowded with people. ln the background is a pier with a very 
distinctive tower — it is Eastbourne, just three or four miles east of
 Beachy Head. (Pleasure boat trips still start from this spot near the 
pier.) After that, the last two shots on the film show a woman in an
 evening dress who looks a bit like Camilla Parker Bowles, either
 presenting or receiving a cup. Obviously we are somewhere else.

After the boxes containing the pictures for A Day Off, I start on
 those with all the other films that Ray-Jones shot at the seaside. He
 photographed a lot, hardly ever choosing more than one image from
 any sheet. Looking through Box 27, I find another sheet of images
 made on that boat. My first thought is that it must precede or follow
 the one I’ve just been looking at. But of course, it can’t, since that
 one starts and ends on shore. This film must have been shot at the
 same time and Ray-Jones must have used a second camera.

I don’t know why, but I find this slightly shocking. The image
 of the camera-laden photo-jock is one I associate more with 
press photographers rather than independent, quick—moving
 documentarians such as Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand or Ray-Jones.
Was it a common practice for him? Or was it a specific response 
to the circumstances of the boat trip: crowded, with little room to
 manoeuvre? We can see that the two cameras carried different
 lenses at the end of each film, where shots of the boat from shore
 are taken from the same position. The frame on the second film is 
tighter and was probably made with a standard 50 mm lens; the lens
 for the first film — and which made the picture he finally chose — was
 wider, perhaps a 35 mm or 28 mm.

It’s initially hard to sort out what’s going on in this second film
 compared with the first. It wasn’t contacted in negative order and
 one jumps about in time going down the sheet. (The first film was 
contacted in the correct order — albeit laid out from bottom to top —
but actually this was quite rare for Ray-Jones, indicating how much 
he was looking for telling single images and was quite uninterested 
in the development of narrative through a sequence of pictures.)

We start already on the boat, further round to the left, where frames
 8 and 9 were taken on the first film, and concentrating on our
main characters: the lovers, the father and daughter. From frame 11 on, though, the smoking man is in frame on the left and it’s by
 concentrating on him that I get a sense of the sequence. He’s in a shirt with his sleeves rolled up, but at 16 he rolls the sleeves down
and between 21 and 23 he puts his jumper on. And since in the
 famous shot he is wearing his jumper, it must have been taken after
 that. (This is ridiculous. Hunched over the contact sheet, peering
 myopically through the lupe, I’m getting excited by someone putting 
on his pullover!)

However, in the next frame – 24 – we can see the lighthouse in the
 distance, a position that we don’t get to until about frame 30 in the
 first film. So everything between 11 and 30 on the first film was 
shot between 23 and 24 in the second, in that little sliver of black,
 as it were. Although Ray-Jones made use of two cameras in this
 situation, he evidently didn’t jump between them but rather shot 
long sequences on one before turning to the other.

The second film also tells us more about these characters on the
boat. The little girl is particularly cute, as she leans against her
 father, laughing and pointing. (Between frames 21 and 23 he lights
up a cigarette and protects it in the palm of his hand. It’s there,
 below the frame, in the selected shot. Would he look so noble and
 contemplative if we could see it?) In frame 29 the (visibly) smoking
man is sitting with his arm round a woman with curly hair. (In the 
final shot, only her backside will appear, sticking out from behind
 Piper.) The man in the flat cap is also sitting next to an older woman 
in dark glasses (we see her collar behind Auntie Lil in the selected
 picture). Lil also seems to be with someone, a younger version of 
herself in matching glasses — presumably her daughter. Thus, all 
these people are in pairs, quite a different effect from the printed 
image where the contrast is between their singleness and the
 couple’s togetherness. Even the captain has a mate in some shots.
(lndeed, it’s quite possible that the only person on his own was the 
photographer.)

Above all, my gaze is focused on the lovers themselves, and they 
look much more ordinary the more we see of them. He has tousled hair and thick glasses (which I am surprised to realise I have never
 noticed before in the final picture). As he squints into the light he 
frankly looks a bit of a geek. With the girl there are moments when
 a little touch of youthful unconventionality is revealed. When she
 kneels on the seat we see that her feet are bare and, on the floor,
 she has a shoulder bag with an ethnic-style knitted pattern. But
 these are hardly symbols of rebellion. This couple represent the
 acceptable face of young romance.

Mostly, the girl seems lost in thought, a little wistful perhaps.
 In these other shots, she looks more like Judith Durham than
 Monica Vitti. (Note for younger readers: Monica Vitti was the star
 of Antonioni’s atmosphere-laden movies of the early sixties. Judith
 Durham was the singer with the wholesome Australian pop group
 The Seekers, whose song ‘Georgy Girl’ had hit the top of the charts 
earlier in 1967.) Yet the closeness of the couple is touching. They 
hold on to each other throughout the trip, though his grasp of her
 from behind could be read as either protective or possessive.

The second film, like the first, ends back on shore, and the last
 single frame is of another, mature couple lying across each
 other on the grass. Caught in the middle of her knitting, the 
woman looks up, a little quizzically and pissed off, directly at the
 photographer. It’s a moment which suddenly makes me aware 
that during the whole of these two films, hardly anyone else has
 been caught looking at the camera. One can think of reasons for 
this. It was a situation where photography would be a socially
 acceptable convention (indeed, it’s surprising that no-one else on 
this boat seems to have a camera). Even so, these people must
 have become aware that this intense young man with the extra 
camera slung round his neck wasn’t interested in photographing
 sea gulls and white cliffs. Perhaps they are being politely English,
 and their scattered eyelines are avoiding the camera as much as
 they are the couple. We also don’t know of course what went on
 between frames — in his notebook, Ray-Jones told himself to ‘Get more involved (talk to people)’. Mind you, he also wrote ‘Be more 
aggressive’, which wouldn’t have helped in this confined space?8

It’s appropriate, then, that it’s only now, near the end of my scrutiny,
 that I notice one last detail. During the second half of the trip and
 on his way home, the captain has folded down the glass screen in
front of him and we see reflections in it of people on the boat but
 otherwise out of shot. In one frame — 25 on the first film — the angle
 is such that we can see on the extreme left a reflection of a man 
with longish hair, wearing a white shirt and holding a camera to his
 eye, pointed back into the frame. It must, of course, be Tony Ray-
Jones himself, emerging for a split second from the anonymity of 
his role behind the camera and, however briefly, part of the confined
 world of the boat.

I think I have spent a longer time studying these contact sheets than
 Ray-Jones spent on the boat. But now those two different passages 
of time are both gone, and I’m left trying to transcribe the meanings
 of the one event through the other. It’s perhaps conventional but
 nevertheless inevitable that we want to imagine the unknowable 
lives these people went back to. As Barthes found with little Ernest,
 we want to know who they were and what happened to them9. Tony 
Ray-Jones is long dead of course, as are most of the other people in
 the picture — except perhaps the lovers themselves, who would be in 
their sixties now. Was this a brief summertime fling or the start of a 
lifetime’s companionship? Impossible to know of course, but equally 
impossible not to ask the question.

And also pointless. What we have are the pictures. What we 
ultimately have is the picture. And I return to it with amazement 
at its perfection. A strange word to use about a caught moment, 
perhaps, but rarely has a candid street-style’ photograph been so finely achieved. Tony Ray-Jones would probably not have been 
happy at my scrutinising the contact sheets in this way — he chose this
 picture to stand alone — but looking through the other images with all
 their awkwardness and lack of resolution has reinforced that sense of
 a moment of epiphany.

Of course, the picture cannot ultimately tell us anything more than 
it contains within its borders (and the contact sheets cannot show
 us anything other than the 73 other moments on either side of it).
The problem with the concept of the ‘decisive moment’ is that it 
extrapolated from that moment as it existed in the photograph in an
 attempt to express the meaning of the event as a whole. It can’t carry 
that weight. From where we stand, the young couple may be central; 
for everyone else in the picture, they are peripheral. Day-trippers 
thrown together by chance, they all have their own lives.

I’m glad, though, that I now know more about how the picture was
 taken. If it had been made now, I might have worried about it being
 staged. But, as Joe Rosenthal said about his famous Iwo Jima
 photo, ‘if it had been set up, it couldn’t have been so good’.10 For the
 ‘perfection’ of such a caught moment also involves the presence
 of all the peripheral, inconsequential elements as well. (Imagine a 
photographer now putting the picture through Photoshop, removing 
the wisp of the girl’s hair on the right edge.) As it is, there they are —
the smoking man and the crusty sea dog, Piper and Auntie Lil and the 
girl who, yes, for a moment was exquisitely, eternally beautiful — on
 that boat off Beachy Head in 1967. It happened.

1T Ray-Jones, A Day Off, with an introduction by A Ellis ILondon: Thames and Hudson, I974)
2 The English Seen was curated in I974 by Barry Lane, Exhibitions Organiser at the Arts
Council of Great Britain, and was accompanied by a fold-out brochure with a text by Peter 
Turner, Assistant Editor of Creative Camera.
3 R Ehrlich, Tony Ray-Jones (Manchester: Cornerhouse, 1990), p28
4 G Winogrand, Women Are Beautiful (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, I975).
5 This is a quotation from Michael Powell’s film Peeping Torn (I959).
6 This was for I Walker, So Exotic, So Homemade: Surrealism, Englishness and Documentary
 Photography (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), where Ray-Jones’s work is
 discussed in relation to Surrealism on pp I67—9.
7 Kitchin’s research was incorporated into what is the major study of Ray-Jones’s work to date; R Roberts, Tony Ray-Jones (London/Bradford: Chris Boot/National Museum of Photography,
 Film & Television, 2004).
8 These quotes are from Ray-Jones’s notebook in the Insight Research Centre in the National
 Media Museum.
9 R Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, I981), p84
10 Rosenthal in fact said of The Raising of the Flag on lwo Jimal ‘Had I posed the shot, I would, 
of course, have ruined it. I would have picked fewer men I would also have made them turn 
their heads so that they could be identified’ quoted in H Evans, Pictures on a Page (London:
Heinemann, 1978; reprinted London:Pimlico,1997), pp145—6.

 

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