It’s easy to see why the reviews have likened Marshland, the Spanish noir directed by Alberto Rodríguez to the first season of True Detective. The film opens with a title sequence comprising stunning aerial shots of the marshes that provide the story’s setting before plunging down into the terrain and introducing the two detectives sent to this remote area of southern Spain to investigate the disappearance (soon revealed to be the brutal murder) of two teenage sisters. Continue reading “Marshland: Spain’s True Detectives”
The photography of humanity.
– Gabriel García Márquez
There’s a moment two-thirds the way through watching Salt of the Earth, Wim Wenders’ stunning new documentary about the work of Sebastiao Salgado, when you feel crushed by the same existential despair felt by the photographer in 1995 when, after years photographing famine, war and genocide in Africa and Europe, he witnessed atrocious scenes in Rwanda and the Congo that left him shaken to the core, despairing of any hope for humanity. Continue reading “The Salt of the Earth: Sebastião Salgado’s own way of seeing”
A week or so ago I wrote about L8 Unseen, a photography exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool. Now I’ve been to see another exhibition of photographs from Liverpool 8, this one at the Bluecoat. Titled, Tricia Porter: Liverpool Photographs 1972-74, the show presents images virtually unseen for 40 years which provide a vivid picture of everyday life in Liverpool 8 at a time when it was undergoing significant change leading to the break-up of close knit communities.
The photos were taken by Tricia Porter who arrived in the city in 1972 where she met her future husband David, then a student at Liverpool University. He lived in Catherine Street and later Percy Street, which back then were both streets in which the elegant Georgian terraces – typical of the area – were faded and often neglected by private landlords. David was keen to document the changing community, and Tricia decided to join him to photograph the people they met. The couple were welcomed into the area, and gained the trust of the residents who allowed them access to their lives, businesses and homes.
After leaving Liverpool University in 1971, we too were making a life together in flats in the same area – first in Princes Avenue, and then in Canning Street. So I was particularly interested to see these images that triggered memories of an area that has changed in so many ways in the decades that have followed.
The Bluecoat exhibition comprises images from two series of photographs shot by Tricia Porter over a two year period. The first, Bedford Street, Liverpool 8 (1972) focused on residents at home, at work, in pubs, or out and about in the area. They include street scenes and images of individuals and families in their homes; some are portraits of well-known characters, such as the social campaigner and local councillor Margaret Simey, and Liverpool sculptor Herbert Tyson Smith in his studio at the Bluecoat.
Some of the most evocative images for me were of Bedford Street itself, before the shops (including Bedford Street Stores, an old-fashioned general grocery where we often shopped) and the terraced houses were demolished and replaced by university buildings as the campus began the inexorable expansion that continues to this day.
All around the area, houses were being pulled down and people relocated Part of Falkner Street was bought by the University to be developed as student accommodation, along with the north side of Bedford Street. In the summer of 1972, David and Tricia met people in their homes, in shops, pubs, schools, churches and hospital, talking with them and photographing them. In January 1973, the resulting photographs were shown at Liverpool
Alongside examples of the photos taken by Tricia that summer, the Bluecoat exhibition also features spreads from Amateur Photographer that covered the 1973 exhibition, and a subsequent one in 1975, as well as displays of other press coverage including articles from the local press and a feature in the Merseyside Arts Association magazine, Arts Alive.
There are displays of exhibition posters, invitation card and a brochure containing Tricia’s text about her work. One poster is for an exhibition later in 1978 at the Half Moon Gallery, London. David and Tricia intended to make their texts and photographs into a book; it never happened, but a mock-up for it is on display.
Two years after the Bedford Street portfolio, Tricia produced another collection, called Some Liverpool Kids (1974), in which images of young people predominate, playing on Windsor Street or in the Anglican Cathedral grounds, posing for group portraits, at street parties and youth clubs, in school, shops and at home.
Taken together, these two series offer an affectionate portrait of this multicultural area and its people. It was, says the artist, ‘an attempt to make a photo documentary which would be a positive and meaningful
statement about my neighbours who had all too often been treated as statistical fodder and sociological phenomena.’
The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent illustrated brochure which includes an essay by Tricia Porter, and a foreword by Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director at the Bluecoat. In it he writes of how he first came across Tricia Porter’s photographs in 2014 on her website. For Bryan, as for me, her photographs struck a chord: at the time the photos were being taken, Bryan was an art student, newly arrived in Liverpool. He recalls:
The faded splendour of large, Georgian terraces, the late-night clubs stretching along Princes Avenue and ‘Upper Parly’, the hordes of young people improvising adventure playgrounds out of bomb-sites, and the Anglican Cathedral looming large over everything.
There was a vitality on the streets that is now absent in the gentrified calm of the ‘Georgian Quarter’ or the eerie stillness of the boarded up or bulldozed streets around Granby. Tricia’s photographs capture something of that time, presenting a compelling picture of everyday life in what was a truly multicultural part of the city.
This exhibition, like L8 Unseen, is part of Look 15, Liverpool’s biennial international photography festival. Bryan Biggs observes that exhibiting Tricia Porter’s photographs is important because photography ‘has changed so fundamentally – technically and democratically (it seems everyone is a photographer now) – since they were taken.’
Tricia’s photographs present not necessarily a more innocent time, but one less complex in comparison to the ubiquity today of of photographic images, their endless digital reproduction and dissemination, issues around the legalities of who ‘owns’ the right to take and distribute images of people, and the ethics of taking portraits without permission.
One could add: the possibility to take candid photos of children in the street without legal restriction or fear of being suspected of having nefarious intent.
In the exhibition brochure, Tricia Porter writes about her intentions in taking these photos:
I particularly wanted to use my photographs to portray our individuality, our unique personalities – a special and important aspect that the media and government bodies too readily ignore. People in this district of Liverpool, for instance, were often characterised as vandals or thieves. I applied successfully to the Arts Council for funding to try to discover through photography a more truthful portrayal of the people in the community – not to conceal the serious problems of mugging or vandalism, but to focus more on aspects of everyday living and personal relationships.
This is a fascinating exhibition which not only brings back into focus what now seems a long-lost period in Liverpool’s past, but also reveals images that challenged the stereotypes of those who lived in Liverpool 8 at the time – stereotypes that over the next two decades were to intensify and become even more hostile.
- Porterfolio: Tricia Porter’s website features two superb presentations of the photographs that make up the Bluecoat exhibition: Bedford Street, Liverpool 1972 and Some Liverpool Kids 1974
- Tricia Porter: Liverpool Photographs 1972-74: review on Open Culture/Merseyside Arts & Culture
- It was the best of times and it was the worst of times: Liverpool Echo feature
- Everyday life in 1970s Toxteth, Liverpool (Telegraph gallery)
- Face the changes: Photographs of 1970s Liverpool (BBC Arts)
Recently I was presented with a beautiful gift – a book by Dominick Tyler called Uncommon Ground: A word-lover’s guide to the British landscape. The book is the product of a year that Tyler spent travelling the length and breadth of the British Isles to photograph specific features of the natural world.
Realising how limited was his vocabulary for naming the things he saw in the landscape – ‘There was a hill, then a dip then some lumpy bits and then it got stony’ – Tyler began collecting words for landscape features that would improve upon the vague generalisations we tend to use today, such as hill, rock or stream. The terms he collected had invariably been used for generations by ancestors who depended on specific words to give directions, tell a story, find a place, or describe the land on which they worked.
The words collected by Tyler – words like zawn, jackstraw, clitter, logan, cowbelly, corrie, spinney and tor – are as varied, rich and poetic as the landscapes they describe. Often they are words in local dialect or the various languages of these isles that describe the same thing: so a corrie in Scotland is a cwm in Wales and a coombe in England. Tyler has arranged his book in eight regional sections, starting in the South West and finishing in the Fenlands of eastern England. Following his journey, it’s easy to see how regional language reflects the intertwining of regional geography with human activity and culture.
Uncommon Ground has the square format of one of those ‘1001 Things to See/Hear/Read/Experience before you die. Each two-page spread consists of Tyler’s photograph of a particular landscape feature, with text on the facing page. Tyler’s words are are as good as his photos: each regional section is prefaced by a personal account of how he explored the area and captured the images, while the explanations of the words are engaging and witty, with the result that reading the book feels far removed from the sensation of ploughing your way through a glossary or dictionary of terms.
Tyler begins in the South West with the term that was already familiar from our many holidays in the far-flung West Penwith tip of Cornwall: Zawn.
Let’s start at the end, or close to it. In flagrant inversion of alphabetisation we begin with zawns, some of the best examples of which are found near Land’s End in Cornwall. Zawn is derived from ‘sawan’, a Cornish word for chasm. […] These steep-sided coastal inlets are formed by wave erosion on weak spots in the cliff face. In taller cliffs, zawns can be formed when waves carve out a cave that grows until its roof collapses completely. […] The Zawn pictured is at at Nanjizal beach, a few miles south of Land’s End, and is called Zawn Pyg (‘pyg’ means ‘pitch’ or ‘tar’ in Cornish, a reference to the black marks on the granite here, perhaps). […] This stretch of coastline, where the unhindered force of the Atlantic Ocean dashes against the seemingly immutable granite cliffs, is punctuated by zawns, a reminder that in geological terms there really is no such thing as immutable.
Tyler’s superb photographs are supported by interesting and sometimes witty accounts of the terms they illustrate. So clitter in Devon (clatter in Cornwall) are the piles of irregular granite boulders that litter and clutter the hillsides around tors. Tyler’s description of how tors came into existence some 280 million years ago, and how clitter was created at the end of the ice ages when water that had seeped into cracks in the granite expanded as it froze and levered off rocks that then tumbled down the hillsides, is accompanied by his remarkable photo – the twisting forms of tree branches in ancient woodland contrasted with the rounded, noss-covered shapes of the fallen boulders – taken at Wistman’s Wood in the West Dart valley
Erratics are large rocks that have been carried by glaciers that subsequently melted, abandoning rocks that are strangers to the local geology. This can happen to individual rocks (we’ve passed the Logan Rock at Treen in West Penwith many times), or to a whole group, as with the Norber erratics near Austwick in Yorkshire, a whole pod of beached greywacke boulders stranded on a Carboniferous limestone pavement. Tyler’s photograph for this term is of the Blaxhall Stone, a five-ton erratic that in the last ice age made its way as far south as Suffolk (though the local legend is that it simply grew there, having been ploughed up in the 1800s as a stone the size of ‘two fists’.
Sgwd, Rhaeadr, Pistyll, Berw and Ffrwd: Topology and climate have given Wales a good number of waterfalls in a variety of forms, explains Tyler; as a result, the Welsh language has a variety of words for waterfall, of which these are the five most common. The distinctions between these Welsh terms are not straightforward. ‘Rhaeadr’, which translates as ‘cascade’ is the most common and widespread in use. ‘Sgwd’ meaning ‘a shoot of water’ or ‘cascade’ is practically synonymous with ‘rhaeadr’ but only used in South Wales. A waterfall of lesser volume that a rhaeadr, or one that is temporary or seasonal, is known as a ‘pistyll’.
Dell or dingle: both have the same meaning, the former word coming down unchanged from Old English, the latter of uncertain origin, but brought into literary use by Milton in his 1634 work Comus:
I know each lane, and every alley green
Dingle or bushy dell of this wilde Wood,
And every bosky bourn from side to side.
Both terms have the same meaning: a small valley or hollow, usually wooded. In Liverpool, there are two familiar locations that bear these names. We have an allotment in the Dingle, a valley which ran down to the Mersey and gave its name to the densely-populated district of working-class terraced housing that grew up around it in the 19th century. The allotment plots still sprawl up and down the banks of the former dingle. Meanwhile, over in Sefton Park, there’s The Dell, a landscaped hollow in which waterfalls tumble amidst shrubs and winding paths.
On Vimeo you can watch a short video made by Dominick Tyler to illustrate Dell and Dingle:
The Dell video is just one of a series posted on Vimeo by the Landreader Project, established by Dominick Tyler to promote the idea of preserving the ancient vocabulary of landscape.
Turning the pages of this book brings encounters with beautiful images and wonderful words. Some words are familiar – machair, glen, scarp, carr, rime, beck and briar – while others – such as daddock, dumbledore, scowle and shivver – were new to me. Most of the terms are local. As Tyler writes:
For all the creeping homogeny of culture and corporations there is also a strong seam of localism in Britain. People value local knowledge and a lot of the words are used only in a small geographical area.
Oddly enough, Robert Macfarlane was engaged at the same time on a similar project, also compiling landscape terms for his latest book Landmarks. I heard the book serialized recently on Radio 4, but haven’t yet read it. In Landmarks, Macfarlane states that knowing the right word for something in nature re-emphasises its value. “Language-deficit leads to attention-deficit”, he writes, adding:
What is lost along with this literacy is something precious: a kind of word-magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place.
The potency of his assertion is underlined by the fact that in January Margaret Atwood, Michael Morpurgo and other writers were compelled to protest to Oxford University Press about the removal of nature-related words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary – words such as acorn, blackberry, hamster, heron, magpie and catkin have been dropped to make room for words such as analog, broadband, blog, chatroom, and cut and paste. “Children no longer use these words,” OUP responded in defence.
As for Uncommon Ground, Dominick Tyler hopes that his book:
By starting to re-enrich our nature vocabulary and our landscape stories … will be a reminder that there was a time when our ancestors read the lines on the land as clearly as any text. We can learn to read it again, perhaps never as fluently as before, but maybe well enough to make it feel more familiar, more real and more connected. In order for us to belong to a place, and it to us, we must first name it.
- An honest conversation with Earth (New Internationalist)
There’s an engaging photography exhibition showing at the Museum of Liverpool at the moment. L8 Unseen features twenty arresting large-scale photographs of individuals and groups who have made their home in Liverpool 8, and whose work reflects its vibrant and determined culture.
Liverpool 8 is a state of mind, an idea, a culture, rather than just a geographical location. L8 transcends postcode boundaries.
So says historian Laurence Westgaph in the introduction to the exhibition. L8 Unseen aims to reveal that state of mind through carefully-staged photographs taken by Othello De’Souza-Hartley accompanied by filmed interviews that highlight the stories and experiences of a diverse range of people from the Liverpool 8 community.
The project was the brainchild of Marc Boothe of B3 Media, and the images were captured by London photographer and artist Othello D’Souza-Hartley, who has previously exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A. In 2014, they began gathering stories and images from the people of Liverpool 8, seeking particularly to present alternatives to the more usual, stereotypical images of the area that tend to predominate in the media.
The photographs were taken in buildings which have historical significance for the people of Liverpool 8, since many of them were founded on the proceeds of the city’s international trading links and the transatlantic slave trade. Setting portraits of individuals and members of groups active in the local community in these locations encourages the viewer to reflect on the city’s history and the patterns of global trade, immigration and settlement which created the rich ethnic mix of L8 and shaped the area’s culture and identity.
So, for example, the photo of four of the area’s faith leaders – Imam Mohammed Alawi (Al Taiseer Mosque), Dr Peter Grant (Princes Road Synagogue), Father Iakovos Kasinos (St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, and Reverend Canon Bob Lewis (St Margaret of Antioch Church) – was taken in Liverpool Town Hall, one of the finest Georgian
civic buildings in the country built in 1749, but with money raised by benefactors who had made fortunes through the slave trade.
Historian Laurence Westgaph again:
The people and cultures that make up the most diverse community on Merseyside have a proud history that began more than 250 years ago. The area developed in the 18th century as Liverpool’s dock capacity increased to accommodate a greater number of larger ships. Tradesmen and builders were drawn from Scotland, Wales and Ireland and settled there.
The area also incorporates the south side of L1 known as ‘Sailortown’ where mainly male migrants from Africa, Asia and the Americas originally settled. Many went on to marry the daughters of their white neighbours. Some of these men and women crossed over the Parliament Street border with their families into the north west end of Toxteth during the 19th and early 20th centuries. …
From there, the community continued to migrate further east and by the 1960s many of the descendants of the early L8 community were actually living in L7, in the Georgian townhouses of Falkner Street, Upper Canning and Upper Huskisson Street. Some in the community were upwardly mobile, owning family businesses and providing vital services to the multitude of seafarers who were confronted by signs in the windows of boarding houses saying ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’.
One of the most successful – and striking – images in the exhibition presents three local men of Afro-Caribbean heritage and successful in the arts and media in the setting of the Athenaeum, the oldest private members’ club in Liverpool, in existence since 1797. The club was founded by Liverpool’s most prominent citizens, many of whom, the exhibition commentary notes, were involved in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade(but note the comment below from David Steers).
The photo features Tayo Aluko (born in Nigeria, a writer, actor and singer who trained and worked as an architect in Liverpool, before he gave up architecture to travel the world performing his one-man play about Paul Robeson), Ramon ‘Sugar’ Deen (club and cabaret singer in the Merseybeat days), and Laurence Westgaph (historian who grew up on the Falkner estate in the 1980s).
Many of the individuals you encounter in these images are well-known to people who live in the area, but less so beyond. One who certainly has a wider profile is Bill Harpe, co-founder and director of the Black-E Community Arts Centre. Originally from county Durham, Bill came to Liverpool in 1961 to dance at the Empire Theatre. Falling in love with Liverpool 8, he set up home here and founded Britain’s first community arts project. The project was originally known as the Blackie – a scouse shortening of ‘The Black Church’, describing the Congregational Chapel built as the Great George Street Church in 1840 and by the 1960s darkened with a century of city smoke and grime – though now goes by the name The Black-E , more appropriate perhaps, given the proximity of the building to Britain’s oldest established African-Caribbean community – and to Europe’s oldest Chinatown – as well as the project’s commitment to cultural diversity.
The Pagoda Chinese Youth Orchestra is based in Liverpool and is the first and largest Chinese youth orchestra in Europe. It teaches young people how to play traditional Chinese musical instruments and offers a programme of training and performance opportunities throughout the year.
At the entrance to the exhibition a panel carries these words from Marc Boothe, Producer, B3 Media:
Liverpool 8 can be different things to different people. For some it is an idea, a culture, rather than simply a geographical location. L8 transcends postcode boundaries. Yet L8 is also a definite space.
Generations of families have come, lived and forged their own identities here. At times their stories have taken in riots and rebellion as well as the everyday human journey of births and deaths, loves and struggles and making a hard living. Memories and stories merge, where do they begin and end? They might arise in China, Somalia or Poland but they continue here and enrich the lives of those in L8, in Britain and in other parts of the world. But L8 it is not a place where separate communities live separate lives. It is these stories of shared experiences that capture the real spirit and heritage of the area from the past and the present, for the future.
Three women with a strong sense of pride, political awareness and community activism are pictured in 19 Abercromby Square, an elegant town house, now part of the University of Liverpool. The house was built in the 1860s for the affluent businessman Charles Kuhn Prioleau from South Carolina who supported the Confederacy during the American Civil War, and helped finance the construction of the Alabama, built in secret at John Lairds shipyard, Birkenhead before serving the Southern cause by attacking Union merchant and naval ships.
Sheila Coleman hails from from a large Liverpool-Irish family, and calls herself ‘scouse, not English’. She’s a well-known activist and campaigner, particularly as spokesperson for the Hillsborough Justice Campaign. She currently works as the North West region community coordinator for the trade union Unite. Donna Kassim is Regional Officer for Unite, while Sonia Bassey, following a successful career as a community artist and director of her own business, now works in local government, responsible for family services.
The Tiber Young People’s Steering Group consists of young people from the Lodge Lane area who are fully involved in planning and decision-making for a major project to build a public square on the Tiber Street site (chosen by the retail guru Mary Portas to be part of her UK-wide campaign to ‘save the high street’). There’s an interesting clip on Vimeo in which Tiber Youth Facilitator Stephen Nze talks about the project and his work.
So what is the culture of L8? Maybe it is the culture of accepting,
tolerating and welcoming people from other cultures. This can be demonstrated in the most obvious and meaningful way, through ‘interracial’ marriage and relationships. It is not a neighbourhood where separate communities live separate lives within a multi-cultural area, similar to what can be seen in many other towns and cities in Britain. L8 is a community where people from all parts of the globe have intermingled genetically and otherwise, for generations.
– Laurence Westgaph, Historian – L8
L8 Unseen is a multimedia exhibition – visitors are offered a number of ways to access the content, including a smartphone app that will play extracts from the oral history interviews as visitors walk around the display. In a separate space there is a continuous screening of the oral histories, complemented by archive photography and stories from the Liverpool 8 Old Photos Facebook group, while visitors are encouraged to add their own L8 tales via a video booth.
The exhibition is part of Look 15, the Liverpool International Photography Festival, which continues throughout May. This year’s theme, Exchange, explores three key topics and the interactions between them: Migration, Women and Photography, and Memory.
On show at the Walker in Liverpool until June is a tremendous exhibition of photography by Martin Parr and Tony Ray Jones. I first saw the exhibition Only in England when it was on at the Science Museum in London in 2013, and it so captivated me then that I had to go and see it again.
For a few years in the late sixties, Tony Ray-Jones travelling across England photographing the English in their eccentricities, on their days off, and especially on holiday at the seaside. His photographs depict us as a lugubrious bunch, determined to be seen to enjoy ourselves, whatever the weather or the unpromising circumstances.
Photography can be a mirror and reflect life as it is, but I also think it is possible to walk, like Alice, through the looking-glass and find another world with the camera.
– Tony Ray-Jones
The photograph of a rather joyless couple sitting on a bench inside ‘Joyland’ amusement park at Great Yarmouth (the letters seen in reverse to the left of the image, above) seems to epitomise Ray-Jones melancholy vision.
Another photo which particularly struck me on a second viewing was the Edward Hopper-like ‘Boarding House Newquay, 1968’. We see two windows illuminated at night: in one a solitary male looks over his shoulder to the outside; in the other a woman sits alone alone. Just as in Hopper, there is an intense sense of solitude, isolation and loneliness.
Tony Ray Jones, Boarding House Newquay, 1968
But there is humour as well as melancholy. Time and again it appears in Ray Jones gaze at English holiday-makers making the best of things, determinedly enjoying themselves in unpromising circumstances. Or it’s in the artful way in which he captures an instant in which a group of individuals are frozen in a moment in a composition in which they are separate, but form a curious relationship.
Tony Ray Jones, Scarborough, 1968
Tony Ray Jones, Brook Street, London, 1968
Tony Ray-Jones, Barbican, London, 1968
Ray-Jones work, humorous and at times melancholy, had a profound influence on photographer Martin Parr, who made this selection of his images, including over 50 previously unseen works. Presented alongside Ray-Jones photos is an early collection by Martin Parr – The Non-Conformists, shot around Hebden Bridge in the 1970s.
Only in England at the Walker
Only in England is a great exhibition that, in Tony Ray Jones analogy, takes us through the looking-glass – to a lost world of half a century ago seen through the lens of a photographer who captures scenes in an instant that makes them appear strange, sometimes melancholy, and often comical.
What follows is my original view of the exhibition after seeing it in London in 2013.
Possibly Morecambe, 1967-68 by Tony Ray-Jones
Here they come. The bloody English… in their Zephyrs, Wolseleys and Anglias. Off to their beauty pageants, caravan parks and penny arcades. Off on their day trips and annual marches. Off to watch the children’s parade. Off to their dog shows and fancy-dress competitions. To eat their buns under umbrellas. To sit in deckchairs in their suits and ties. Here they are… in their cardigans and V-neck sweaters, their trews and short-shorts. Boys, girls, mums and dads, grandmas and grandads – resolutely cheerful on their joyless holidays. Off to follow their peculiar little rituals. The Punch and Judy. The ballroom dancing. The morris dancing. The coach and boat trip. The grim little street markets. The freezing beaches.
This is the novelist Mick Jackson perfectly capturing in words what the photos of Tony Ray-Jones, taken in the late 1960s, captured of English customs and eccentricities through the lens. The photographs taken by Tony Ray-Jones form half of the exhibition Only in England that I saw at the Science Museum when I was in London last month.
Possibly Worthing, 1967-68 by Tony Ray-Jones
Between 1966 and 1969 Tony Ray-Jones documented English customs and identity, travelling across England photographing what he saw as a disappearing way of life. Humorous and at times melancholy, his images had a profound influence on photographer Martin Parr, who made this selection of Ray-Jones work, including over 50 previously unseen works from the National Media Museum’s Ray-Jones archive. Ray-Jones work is shown alongside The Non-Conformists, Martin Parr’s rarely seen early collection shot around Hebden Bridge in the 1970s, so demonstrating the close relationships between the work of these two leading photographers.
Ramsgate, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones
Despite having a legendary reputation among photographers, Tony Ray-Jones’ photographs are not widely known. This is probably due mainly to the fact that he died tragically young, aged 30, in 1972 before he was able to secure a wider audience for his work. His legacy persists, however, and the point of this show is to show how much Ray-Jones’ English pictures, collected in the book A Day Off – An English Journal, published four years after his death, influenced the young Martin Parr. Depictions of leisure and the absurdities of everyday life are at the heart of both photographers’ concerns, and both are fascinated by the British seaside and English customs.
Southport, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones
Tony Ray-Jones developed his signature style not in England, but in America – in New Haven and New York, wandering the streets with a camera between 1961 and 1965. There, he learned to create sophisticated narratives from everyday life. Energised by this experience, Ray-Jones returned to England in 1964 where he formed a plan to to record examples of English attachment to tradition and culture at a time when he felt that England was losing its cultural identity through encroaching Americanisation.
May Day celebrations 1967, by Tony-Ray Jones
The resulting images displayed in this exhibition, reveal a photographer interested in the eccentricities of human behaviour. Before visiting the locations where these photos were made, Ray-Jones did some thorough research, and his images are characterised by a wry humour, yet at the same time there is melancholy – a lament for a disappearing culture. Ray-Jones photographed an England very different to that of today – a country on the cusp of social change and transformation. Yet, looking at this collection, I realise how much of the stuffy, conventional culture of the 1950s hung on through the ‘swinging’ sixties.
Brighton Beach, 1966 by Tony Ray-Jones
in the booklet that accompanies the exhibition, Martin Parr writes:
Perhaps the most influential moment of all was seeing the work of British photographer Tony Ray-Jones, shown to an eager group of first-years by Bill Jay in 1971, when I was a photography student at Manchester Polytechnic. […] It was his ability to construct complex images, with everyone perfectly placed in the uniquely English atmosphere and surroundings, which struck a chord of recognition – and envy – in me. Ray-Jones’s skills were learnt from a generation of street photographers he had encountered in NewYork in the mid-1960s. […] The group included Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz and many other photographers who would later go on to define this particular generation. Their ability to use the street as the backdrop to seek out their own personal dramas was key to the language that Ray-Jones acquired, and he was keen to return to England and apply this formula to a country that had never been photographed in this way before.
I immediately recognised and was inspired by this new language he had applied so successfully, and also admired the work of his peers in New York. But the magic of some of Ray-Jones’s iconic images with their quirky English observations – especially at the seaside – most enthralled and excited me. It is quite significant that the beach became the most important feature of Ray-Jones’s subject matter, for it is very similar to the New York street, where personal dramas can be explored and constructed. The streets of New York were very American and the beach peculiarly British.
Blackpool, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones
Again and again, the Ray-Jones photos in this show return to the English seaside (as in Brighton Beach, 1966, above, its determined picnickers hanging on in quiet determination, windswept and with rain imminent; or Great Yarmouth, 1966, below, with its dilapidation, desperate couple, metal palm trees and desultory string of lights).
Great Yarmouth, 1966 by Tony Ray-Jones
A great many of his photos depict holidaymakers and day-trippers determinedly eating in the most unlikely or unpromising circumstances (see Brighton Beach, above; or May Day celebrations 1967, above, in which people attending a village fete ignore the English rain and get on with eating sausage rolls under umbrellas; or, top, Worthing, 1967-68, in which a family have simply spilled out of their car onto steps by the parking place and eat there). As Mick Jackson observes in the exhibition booklet:
All this Englishness requires regular sustenance. Sipped from up and saucer in front of tiny tea shop. Poured from Thermos flask. Brewed with water, freshly boiled on Primus stove. In car park and lay-by. On trestle table and fold-out chair. In church hall. Park. Garden. Seaside. Oh, where on earth would the English be without their cup of tea?
Untitled by Tony Ray-Jones
Brighton, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones
Glyndebourne, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones
Ray-Jones was also very alert to the visible signs of English class differences – on the streets, on beaches or in parks. He had read Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier and that had set him off in search of telling images of English society at each level.
Eton, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones
Durham Miners’ Gala, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones
One pair of photographs – of dogs with their owners – seems to illustrate this attention to the details of class differences. In Crufts, 1968 we see well-dressed owners with a superior and then very fashionable breed of dog – the Bedlington terrier while in Wormwood Scrubs Fair, 1968 Ray-Jones has portrayed a different class of dog and person.
Crufts, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones
Wormwood Scrubs Fair, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones
Dean Brierly, writing for B&W magazine, puts his finger on the way in which Tony Ray-Jones combined this social observation with a ‘slyly subversive’ satirical humour:
One doesn’t often encounter a photographer who embodies the social satire of William Hogarth, the sociological thrust of George Orwell and the surreal humor of the Marx Brothers. But Tony Ray-Jones was nothing if not unique. […] His work, at once subjectively complex and slyly subversive, gave the impression that one was seeing England for the first time. […]
Channeling Fellini’s satiric instincts and Renoir’s visual poetry, Ray-Jones mined his particular vein of tragi-comic subject matter at carnivals and dances, folk festivals and beauty contests, dog shows and society events. He photographed working class families vacationing at seaside resorts like Margate and Brighton, and the privileged classes unwinding in the rarefied milieux of Eton and Ascot. In an era when street life was far more spirited and uninhibited, Ray-Jones bore witness to countless mini-dramas played out on England’s public stage, often with a sardonic eye and always with deep-seated compassion.
Eastbourne, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones
Beachy Head boat trip, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones
One of the most striking images displayed here is Beachy Head boat trip, 1967 in which a pair of young lovers, oblivious to the camera, are caught as if pulled straight from a film set. The surrounding group of people appear unconnected to the couple, or to each other (this is a striking aspect, too, of the shot captured, possibly at Morecambe around 1967, that heads this post).
Looking at Beachy Head boat trip, you marvel at the success of a photo that captures the tension between the chaos of a fleeting moment and what appears to be a carefully-staged scene. Another aspect of this image that exemplifies the best of Tony Ray-Jones’ work is the way in which he first draws our attention to the centre of the picture, before pushing it out to the small dramas unfolding at the edges (this is apparent, too, in Southport, 1967, seen earlier in this post).
Broadstairs, 1967, by Tony Ray-Jones
Brighton Beach, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones
In his essay in the exhibition booklet, Mick Jackson says how, in Ray-Jones photos, ‘the English appear to be a bit of a rum lot, not overly prone to fun or flamboyance. We go about our recreation gravely; fail to arrange ourselves in a still or photogenic manner’. There are certainly some rum goings-on in a series of images he captured in 1968 of the Bacup Coconut Dancers – black-face dancers who, every Easter Saturday, parade through working class streets performing traditional folk dances in blackened faces that may reflect mining connections, or may simply be a surviving element of racist stereotyping.
Bacup Coconut Dancers, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones
To quote Mick Jackson again, Tony Ray-Jones photos reveal people ‘busy with their everyday business’:
Standing on railway platforms… chatting… buying ice creams… waiting for the procession to pull away. If life is what happens in the meantime, then here is the meantime writ large.
Tony Ray-Jones’ photographs bookend this exhibition, which opens with already-published images, and closes with a selection under the title A New Look at Tony Ray-Jones compiled by Martin Parr from the Ray-Jones archive at the National Media Museum in Bradford. Parr examined over 2500 contact sheets and chose previously-unseen work that can only reinforce Ray-Jones’ reputation. Parr also pays homage to Ray-Jones’ enduring influence on his own work. Among the striking images in this section seen earlier in this post are the shots of the Bacup Coconut Dancers, Morecambe, 1967-68 and Worthing, 1967-68. Here, too, is Brighton Beach, 1967 in which a young girl listens to a Dansette record player on the beach, singles lined up on her blanket. There are many more images of families eating picnic lunches in the most unpromising circumstances in various seaside resorts – such as Untitled and Brighton, 1967 in which a family sit having a picnic under umbrellas on the kerbside.
Here, too, are displays of material from Tony Ray-Jones’ notebooks, in which he meticulously recorded details of all his shots – and thoughts on his practice. In several journal entries he questions his role as a photographer and is self-critical of his practice. I found his notes headed ‘Method’, a series of bullet points with underlinings and capitalized letters, a concise and worthwhile set of guidelines for any photographer seeking to take better pictures.
In between the two displays of Ray-Jones’ work is one drawn from Parr’s first major body of work, The Non-Conformists, which documented the people and landscape around Hebden Bridge in the late 1970s. As a photography student at Manchester Polytechnic in 1970, Martin Parr had been introduced to Tony Ray-Jones. In 1974, Parr moved to Hebden Bridge where, inspired by Ray-Jones, and fascinated by the variety of nonconformist communities he encountered in the town, he produced The Non-Conformists, shot in black and white in Hebden Bridge and the surrounding Calder Valley. The project started within two years of Ray-Jones’ death and demonstrates his legacy and influence.
Congregation making their way to Crimsworth Dean Methodist chapel annual service, 1975 by Martin Parr
Parr became very much a part of the tightly-knit community centred on Hebden Bridge where traditional ways of life, organised around chapel and hill-farming, were in decline. A fine image that seems to sum up that sentence is the one shown above – in which four women, members of a shrinking congregation make their way up the lane to the remote Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel in 1975.
Parr took many photos of the chapel and its surviving congregation. There is a superb image of the chapel, taken in 1977, standing isolated on the moors in an evening mist, its windows brightly illuminated in the encircling gloom, with two vehicles parked alongside.
Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel, 1977 by Martin Parr
Crimsworth Dean Chapel, 1976 by Martin Parr
When Parr, two years out of art school, moved to Hebden Bridge it was 1975, and a traditional way of life was in decline. Factories were closing, industry was leaving and the town was gentrifying. Beyond the town, farming was in decline and chapel congregations were getting smaller. A new community was emerging made up of people like Parr and his wife: ‘incomers — youthful artistic refugees… in search of alternative lifestyles and cheap housing’, as Parr’s wife Susie writes in her introduction to the book of The Non-Conformists.
Mythrolmroyd: Scarbottom, Redman’s Factory, 1975 by Martin Parr
With four other artists, Parr opened up a storefront workshop and darkroom in the middle of town. Equipped with a Leica and a single lens, he began to explore the area – its landscape, people and traditions. He says:
Places change all the time and the type of people who live there change. I was not so much looking at the new incomers, but at the traditional lifestyle there.
Parr would wander around, attend events listed in the local paper, and on Sundays go to services at the Non-Conformist chapels which were dotted all over town. In these chapels and their proud, independently-minded congregations, he found the focus for the body of work. In one chapel in particular he documented the lives of an elderly couple, Charlie and Sarah Hannah Greenwood, who remained stalwart members of their religious community. The Greenwoods, befriended by Parr and his wife, were members of Crimsworth Dean Methodist chapel, part of a network of volunteers looking after the chapels – cleaning, making the tea, washing windows and maintaining the ancient heating. Parr’s superb portraits of the Greenwoods – in chapel and in their home at Thurrish Farm – became central to The Non-Conformists and are at the heart of this section of the Science Museum exhibition.
Crimsworth Dean Chapel Anniversary: Charlie and Sarah Greenwood put up their Anniversary curtains, only hung on special occasions, 1976 by Martin Parr
Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel: Charlie Greenwood singing hymns in the chapel, 1976 by Martin Parr
Sarah Hannah Greenwood at Thurrish Farm, 1976 by Martin Parr
Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel: Sarah Hannah Greenwood at the Anniversary, 1976
Tom Greenwood cleaning, 1975 by Martin Parr
In his review of the exhibition Sean O’Hagen who writes on photography for The Guardian commented:
It’s easy to forget how quietly observational Parr was as a black-and-white photographer. There are scenes here in which you can almost feel the silence of a particularly English puritanical form of worship: severe-looking men and women seated in pews intent on their hymnals and bibles; a woman spooning sugar into her teacup beneath a grotesque painting of the Last Supper. There is unlikely drama, too: in one surreal shot, a young boy with a toy machine gun sprays imaginary bullets at an outdoor congregation from behind a plinth. In another, a besuited and bespectacled man holds up a single cabbage in a harvest auction.
Parr captures this world of worship in such telling detail that it may make you question everything you thought you knew about his work, and how he arrived where he is today. The influence of Ray-Jones is apparent here and there, but this is someone who had already found his own perception of the world.
Mankinholes Methodist Chapel, Todmorden, 1975 by Martin Parr
Halifax, West Vale Park: Three local chapels combine to have an outdoor service, 1975 by Martin Parr
There were so many images here that I admired: Tom Greenwood balancing precariously on a stepladder while cleaning his front-door window, opening on to the cobbled streets of Hebden Bridge; the superb shot of a butcher’s shop in Mytholmroyd, the butcher framed in one window, while his assistant wraps meat in the other; the pavement outside a terraced house in Hebden Bridge meticulously cleared of snow. And then there were a couple of photos that, like Tony Ray-Jones’, spoke of the importance eating: the rush for the buffet at the Mayor of Todmorden’s inaugural banquet, and a 1977 Jubilee street party washed out by a storm, cakes and pies left out in the pouring rain. All of these are superb compositions in black and white that speak volumes about the people and the community onto which they open a window.
Butcher’s shop, Mytholmroyd, Yorkshire, 1977 by Martin Parr
Hebden Bridge, February 1978 by Martin Parr
Todmorden: the Mayor of Todmorden’s inaugural banquet, 1977
Elland Jubilee street party, 1977 by Martin Parr
Martin Parr’s career took off after he left Hebden Bridge and moved to Liverpool to produce The Last Resort, the series of saturated colour photographs of holidaymakers at a rundown seaside resort of New Brighton. Now he is a Magnum photographer with an international reputation. Speaking about Tony Ray-Jones he has said:
Tony Ray-Jones’ pictures were about England. They had that contrast, that seedy eccentricity, but they showed it in a very subtle way. They have an ambiguity, a visual anarchy. They showed me what was possible.
Broadstairs, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones
In an essay on Press Leaf, Tony Ray-Jones and the End of Self-Sufficiency, Tom Young speculates on the meaning that Ray-Jones’ photos convey in the 21st century:
The British ability to show stoicism, both in the face of hardship but more commonly in the face of boredom – essentially making do – is a comforting self-image. From the Blitz to rationing, the three-day weeks to the 7/7 bombings, the British, we tell ourselves, make the best of it. Like German efficiency, French passion and American aspiration; British muddling through is now bound up in national stereotyping, unthinkingly woven into the very fabric of the Union Jack.
Ray Jones’s pictures don’t contradict this. Many of the photographs show families or groups of people, just pottering. Not pottering bravely, but certainly entertaining themselves when no entertainment seems present. In Broadstairs, 1967 [above] the scene is a busy, but strangely serene one. In the top half of the frame two boys play with footballs, separately. Behind them, rows of parents and grandparents sit, with no apparent distractions. A teenage boy is hunched in front of them all with his knees tucked up under his chin, looking out to sea, deep in an adolescent reverie. In the foreground a child swings awkwardly on a bannister. To his right, a couple, again, just sit. It’s a picture of self-sufficiency; of everyone having a jolly nice time in their own company, thank-you-very-much.
Martin Parr, who co-curated the exhibition and spent a week in April poring over 2500 contact sheets of Ray Jones’s work, suggests there isn’t. In his notes that accompanied the photographs, he had a warning for exhibition-goers: ‘we must not become hostages to nostalgia’. Of course, the first pitfall of gawping at photos taken during the 1960s is probably just that: nostalgia, even for those too young to remember it. “Look at their funny trousers and buttoned-up civility!” we must emphatically not say. Instead, we’re all the same – it’s just fashions that change.
But what if we can see that there has been a change? It’s visible in the contrast between the photos and the gallery they’re in, as a guard gently admonishes a young man for instagramming a photo just feet away from a sign banning photography. The endless possibilities – or seething static – aided by 4G connections and Xtra Power Chargers, mean that the age old British value of making do, of playing with a hoop and a stick; or just a stick if there’s no hoop, is redundant.
And if one day the internet and all its distractions collapses under solar flares, or a government shut-down, and the British have to return to old ways, how would we find it? Perhaps we’d go back to our coastal towns; to Great Yarmouth, Blackpool and Morecambe, and like subjects in Ray-Jones’s photos, sit and stare out to sea again, blankly and happily.
Only in England: Science Museum intro on YouTube
- Only in England: Photographs from a bygone era: Martin Parr narrates BBC slideshow of images
- Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr: English rituals of the 60s (Guardian)
- Tony Ray-Jones and the Lyrical Origin of Parrworld: essay at Photo Histories
- Only in England Martin Parr and Tony Ray-Jones: in-depth review, Foray into Photography blog
Jane Bown, self-portrait, c 1986
‘I was terrified, I don’t think I even knew who he was. But the light was good …’
That was the photographer Jane Bown who died yesterday, speaking of her first commission for the Observer in 1949 – a portrait of the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Her words, writes Luke Dodds today in his tender and funny Guardian obituary of one of Britain’s finest post-war photographers, ‘classic Jane: concise, self-deprecating and modestly assured’.
Bertrand Russell by Jane Bown
Bown differed from her male colleagues in the world of photo-journalism in many ways, Dodds tell us. She was intuitive, worked fast, and lacked all interest in camera equipment. In a typical shoot she exposed no more than a roll and a half of film, often in just 15 minutes.
Once, in a dark alleyway down the side of the Royal Court theatre in London, she cornered Samuel Beckett, who was notorious for refusing to be photographed. ‘With simmering hostility’, he stood long enough for Jane to expose five frames – the middle one, says Dodds, ‘is one of her most recognisable portraits and the best portrait of the playwright’.
Samuel Beckett, in 1976 by Jane Bown
In 1969, Jane produced another iconic portrait – of Billie Whitelaw, who also died yesterday. Best known for her work with Samuel Beckett, she has been described as his ‘muse’, and will always be associated with the three major works – Not I (1973), Footfalls (1976) and Rockaby (1981) – that Beckett wrote specifically for her, roles that placed enormous technical and psychological demands on the actress. ‘She doesn’t ask any damn-fool questions,’ Beckett once said wryly, explaining his preference for the unpretentious woman, daughter of a Liverpool electrician and his wife, who grew up in Bradford.
Billie Whitelaw by Jane Bown
Jane Bown’s main preoccupation on any shoot was the light. She worked almost exclusively with natural light and in a completely intuitive way, preferring to ignore the camera’s light meter. Many of her best pictures involved a single exposure and she once remarked: ‘I was always a one-shot photographer … where I’m good is that I am very quick.’
Jane Bown at Guildford School of Art, c 1947
In his obituary, Luke Dodds adds this little vignette of her working method:
She liked to be at the same height or slightly higher than her subjects: given her diminutive stature, this sometimes led to unorthodox requests – Michael Parkinson reclining on the floor of ITN’s reception; Björk perched on rubbish bins outside the MTV studios in Camden Town. Then she would begin to circle the subject, gently clicking all the time. She knew instinctively if she had captured a good frame and would often say: “Ah, there you are.” Jane liked nothing better than to concentrate on the eyes, often using such a limited depth of field that one of the subject’s eyes is slightly out of focus.
David Hockney by Jane Bown
I enjoyed Dobbs’ story of when Jane photographed Tony Blair just before he became prime minister in 1997. He writes:
Looking at the contact sheets it is clear that she struggled. When I asked her about it she replied: ‘It was impossible … he was nice and he allowed me to follow him upstairs so that he could try on a different shirt.’ When I pressed further, she scrunched up her face trying to remember the day and eventually said: ‘It was impossible, because there was nothing real there.’
Maya Angelou, who also died this year, by Jane Bown
WH Auden by Jane Bown
John Betjeman by Jane Bown
Mick Jagger by Jane Bown
Lucian Freud by Jane Bown
Keith Richards by Jane Bown
John Lennon by Jane Bown
Joan Baez by Jane Bown
Doris Lessing by Jane Bown
Church cleaner, Ashbrittle, Somerset, 1950s by Jane Bown
Beryl Bainbridge by Jane Bown
Eamonn McCabe, one time picture editor at the Guardian adds an affectionate footnote to Luke Dodds’ obituary, in which he writes:
Nobody has taken so many wonderful photographs of so many great faces with such little fuss as Jane Bown. She was a reluctant star, hating the attention of being well-known herself. She hated being photographed too. I was lucky she trusted me, but she watched me like a hawk when I photographed her at 80. She photographed the Queen that year and I photographed the queen of photography.
I worked alongside her at the Observer for nearly 15 years and she was as nervous as the rest of us every time she went out to take a picture, but unlike many of us, she prepared meticulously. Light was the most important thing in her life. She never used flash, probably didn’t know how it worked.
If you look at many of Jane’s pictures, the subject is often smiling and relaxed. That was because they were often taken after a long lunch, at which Jane would never drink, and shot by a light-filled window. But the real reason was that they all loved Jane. I often see her kind of picture when I look through a lens now, and think to myself, I can’t take that … it’s a Jane Bown.
Jane Bown in 2006 by Eamonn McCabe
Germaine Greer once wrote of Jane Bown: ‘If we are to assess the best of her photojournalism it is to Cartier-Bresson that we must turn to find her soulmate.’