Only in England – Exhibition

Friday, 24 March 2017 at Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle for this exhibition of work by Tony Ray-Jones (TRJ) and Martin Parr.  Chances to see any work by Ray-Jones these days are rare, and apart from the book published to accompany this exhibition (at a frankly shocking price!) none of his own books, or others about his work, are presently in print so far as I have been able to ascertain and now command crazy prices on the second-hand market, so any opportunity to see anything by him is not to be missed.  This show has actually been doing the rounds for a while but this is the first time it has come within striking distance of where I live (though still more than an hour’s drive away).

This exhibition consists of original prints made by TRJ himself, some new prints, selected and printed by Parr from contact sheets left in TRJ’s archive and not printed in his own day, and some of Parr’s own early work, The Non-Conformists, that was clearly directly influenced by TRJ.

I was introduced to TRJ only a year or so ago by my then tutor on a previous course (cheers, Chris!) and since then he has become firmly established in my personal canon of great photographers.  Martin Parr’s work I was already aware of though I did not know about the influence on him of TRJ.  Parr is of course now probably much better known to a wider audience than TRJ, partly simply because he is still alive and working, with a much bigger corpus of work than TRJ was able to produce during his tragically short life.  Parr’s greater celebrity therefore raised in my mind the question whether his work might now eclipse TRJ’ work, and whether the earlier work would still stand up today.  On the evidence of this show I think the answers are firmly no and yes, in that order.

A note first about the hanging.  Most of the works are hung in two rows, the new prints in three, in the temporary exhibitions space at Bowes, which is a large, airy, high ceilinged, square room.  For some reason the room has been made quite dark (to protect TRJ’s original prints?) but there are very bright, low floor-standing lights in the corners that oddly shine right in the face of the viewer of the pictures towards the corners, making them quite difficult and uncomfortable to see properly.  The use of the multiple rows also adds to the difficulty of viewing as the bottom row is uncomfortably low – ok if you are a child perhaps but not a grown up!  On the plus side though the original prints are beautifully framed in simple black within quite late white mounts.  Nothing in the framing distracts from the prints themselves, which are of course black and white.

To distinguish them from the originals, the new prints, are quite a lot larger and framed in plain, natural coloured wood frames.  I actually found the framing of these a little more distracting, the wood jarring slightly with the black and white.

Parr’s own work is framed in the same way as TRJ’s originals, but on a larger scale.

Some thoughts on TRJ’s work.  As one might perhaps expect from work of this nature and from that time (the 1960s) the images all have a slightly grainy quality. That I find entirely appropriate given the subject matter.  I feel it adds an extra emotional depth and a sort of ‘authenticity’.

From a compositional point of view the pictures are very loosely and fluidly structured with no signs of posing that I could discern.  It is common for figures peripheral to the main subjects to be partly cut off out of the frame.  Clearly the images are a result of having captured a precise moment and it is the subject at that very instant that is the most important thing, rather than considerations of classical composition.  Nevertheless, although they may appear at a superficial level to be informally composed, I suspect that they are in fact very carefully put together and a lot of thought was put into what TRJ finally chose to include in the frame.  It is though all very subtle and apparently unaffected.  I am encouraged in this view as TRJ apparently wrote in his diaries:  “Be more aware of composition.”

(Unfortunately I do not have a citation for this quotation beyond a blog post on Art Blart – https://artblart.com/tag/martin-parr-the-non-conformists/

which I only discovered after having started to write this post but which has some interesting analysis of TRJ’s approach to composition.)

Another striking element with regard to composition is that rarely do the subjects dominate let alone fill the frame.  There tends to be a lot of space around and between them.

In comparison, Parr’s work, though I still much admire this particular series, is much more explicitly considered and composed, evidently on occasion also posed.  Extraneous elements have been kept out of frame, the subject is clear and dominates the space.  In only one photo that I can recall are subordinate subjects partly cut off but they are clearly there to act as internal frames for the primary subject – Anniversary Tea, Steep Lane Baptist Chapel.

The comparison of these two sets of images is what leads me to the answers to the questions I posed earlier.  Parr’s are great works but TRJ’s still stand very much on their own merits.  Their apparent spontaneity and ‘looseness’ give them real strength, not to mention great charm and wit.  They also have a particular personal attraction for me because, as a child of the 1960s, many of the scenes he depicted are just as I remember the way the world looked when I was young.  I still remember much of my childhood in black and white!

What about the new prints?  I am more ambivalent about these, for a couple of reasons.

One is technical.  What struck me straightaway about these prints is how they differ tonally from TRJ’s originals.  With one notable exception the original prints have a strong tonal range.  They are very ‘contrasty’.  The dark shades are very strong.  One photo has a much more even, softer tonal range, more a series of greys than black and white, and visually it does not have anything like the same impact as the others.  The new prints are all similarly soft and grey.  The lack of strong contrasts does, I fear, take away a lot of their impact.

The other is to do with the quality, the strength, of the images themselves.  I recognise that I might in part be influenced here by my preference for the way the originals were printed, but I just do not feel that, with a couple of exceptions, these photos are as strong.  Perhaps this is why TRJ did not print them himself?

So, apart from a couple, the new prints do not really “wow” me.  Nevertheless it is still good to be able to see them; the more of TRJ’s work we can see, the better.  Even if they were, and this is of course pure speculation on my part, less successful in TRJ’s own eyes it is nevertheless valuable to see them, if only the better to understand what makes the rest of his work so good.

http://thebowesmuseum.org.uk/Exhibitions/2017/Only-In-England

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