Tony Ray-Jones in colour

Tony Ray Jones: American Colour 1962-1965

When considering the 1960s, there are certain photographers whose names leap out at us, the majority from the world of fashion, with the so-called holy trinity of David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy at the forefront.

Yet away from the glamour of the fashion scene, a new breed of social photographers was emerging. And one of those was Tony Ray-Jones whose pictures helped define photography in the 1970s and beyond, despite his death from leukaemia aged 30 in 1972.

From 21 September an exhibition of his work, Only in England, is on show at Media Space in London. It features more than 100 works drawn from the 2,700 contact sheets and negatives held at the National Media Museum, many of which have been selected by photographer Martin Parr.

In addition to this, a selection of rarely seen colour photographs from his time spent in the US has been published by Mack, offering a glimpse into his time developing his own voice as a photographer.

Born in 1941, the youngest son of British painter Raymond Ray-Jones, he studied graphics and photography in London before moving to the US on a scholarship to study at Yale in 1961.

In his early 20s, the colour and chaos of New York provided Ray-Jones with the material he needed to shape his vision and he did this alongside street photographers Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand, with whom he used to prowl 5th Avenue with a 28mm lens on his camera.

Tony Ray Jones: American Colour 1962-1965

At the time colour photography was considered as vulgar and looked down on by the establishment, but it suited their needs.

"I found America a very colour-conscious country," Ray-Jones said. "Colour is very much part of their culture, and they use it in crazy ways. You look down Madison Avenue at lunchtime and the colours just vibrate."

In an interview with Liz Jobey, Meyerowitz notes that part of the reason for using colour was speed.

Start Quote

Be more aggressive. Be more involved. Talk to people. Stay with the subject. Be patient. Take simpler pictures. Don't take boring pictures. Get in closer.”

End Quote From the notebooks of Tony Ray Jones

Without a darkroom to develop their own black-and-white film, the use of colour meant they could shoot and drop the film off at a laboratory that would turn around the prints quickly.

"We were two young novices and we didn't know any better and we only wanted to see the work as fast as we could get our hot little hands on it," says Meyerowitz.

"It's a youthful tactic, like today's youth shoots digitally, so they can look at them while they are on the street. It's a matter of speed."

Ray-Jones's background as a graphic designer and time spent as an art director can be seen in many of these frames from the US. Indeed his understanding of how photography communicates echoes the thoughts of John Szarkowski, head of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art.

"Photography can be a mirror and reflect life as it is, but I also think that perhaps it is possible to walk like Alice, through a looking-glass, and find another kind of world with the camera," said Ray-Jones.

Tony Ray Jones: American Colour 1962-1965

His journey to develop his own style was fairly rapid and by the time he returned to England in 1965, he was ready to embark on the project he is best remembered for, the series of photographs that would be published posthumously as A Day Off: An English Journal (1974).

And in 1969, alongside Enzo Ragazzini, Dorothy Bohm and Don McCullin his pictures were shown at the ICA, it was the first time the institute had exhibited photography.

By now his pictures were far more complex, allowing various elements to come together within the frame, giving the viewer a chance to let their eyes soak up the scene.

These are complex pictures as can be seen in the examples below. Though they work at face value, it is the interaction of the figures and how they work the space within the frame that is key to their appeal and social commentary.

Beauty contestants, Southport, Merseyside, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum Beauty contestants, Southport, Merseyside, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum
Location unknown, possible Morecambe, 1967 - 68 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum Location unknown, possibly Morecambe, 1967-68 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

The exhibition at Media Space runs until 16 March 2014 and also includes Martin Parr's early black-and-white work The Non-Conformists. The series was taken in Hebden Bridge and the surrounding Calder Valley, and only previously exhibited in the region itself and at Camerawork Gallery, London in 1981. Parr has always sited Ray-Jones as a big influence on his work and you can see that in this collection.

For those interested, you can hear Greg Hobson, Curator of Photographs at the National Media Museum in Bradford talking about the work on YouTube.

Here's a further selection of Tony Ray-Jones' colour work.

Tony Ray Jones: American Colour 1962-1965
Tony Ray Jones: American Colour 1962-1965
Tony Ray Jones: American Colour 1962-1965

American Colour 1962-1965, edited by Liz Jobey is published by Mack.

All photographs © National Media Museum/Tony Ray-Jones.

Phil Coomes, Picture editor Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

The photographs that reunited families

The Polaroid photographs that helped reunite families in Rwanda

Read full article

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • PortlandTake it easy

    Could this be the most relaxed business city in the world?

Programmes

  • Papers Please gameClick Watch

    Meet the ‘bedroom programmer’ whose game has sold half a million copies and won a Bafta

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.