Around twenty years ago, i came across an image by a photographer whose work stood out from the page of the magazine. It was humorous and yet sad at the same time. The work was by a British photographer called Tony Ray-Jones. I have always loved photographers who realise the value of the subject that they work with. Other photographers like Peter Korniss photographed disappearing ways of life as modern life encroached into the old remote communities. Tony Ray-Jones did a similar thing but his subjects weren't living in a remote Hungarian village - they were living throughout Great Britain.
Tony Ray-Jones was born in Wells, Somerset, UK in 1941 and was the youngest son of a painter and etcher Raymond Ray-Jones who died when Tony was just eight months old. After the death of his father, Tony's mother took the family to Tonbridge in Kent, then onto Little Baddow (near Chelmsford, Essex) before settling in Hampstead, London. Tony's early education was a painful one - he hated the school he attended at Christ's Hospital at Horsham - but his studies later enabled him to enter the London school of printing. Initially he studied graphic design but later he would be awarded a scholarship to Yale university of art on the strength of his photography.
Ray-Jones was interested in the creative aspects of photography and went to the design lab held by the art director Alexey Brodovitch. Brodovitch high standards and no nonsense approach to photography helped the photographer develop his photography skills further. This was also matched with his introduction to the street photographers of New York of which several, including Joel Meyerowitz, became very influential in his later work. Many of the simple rules and lessons learned from these experienced photographers were jotted down in notebooks. 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.' This deep study of other photographers working plus the experience of assignments for a number of publications would help develop Ray-Jones work further. Many have compared Ray-Jones work to that of contemporary photographer Martin Parr. There are similarities in the style and subject matter, but Ray-Jones' images retain one element above Parr's image. Compassion. Martin Parr's images have always been very unsympathetic views of society with a detached cold feel to them. Tony Ray-Jones may have looked on amused but he never ridiculed.
In 1965, Tony Ray-Jones returned to Britain determined to use what he had learned in the U.S. His passion for photographing Britain during the 'swinging sixties' lay was due to the fact that Ray-Jones could see the spread of American culture was drowning out distinct elements of British cultural life. The photographs that he took reflect the start of a sense of loss of national identity - a way of life was coming to an end. In the 21st century, globalism is a phrase that is embraced to reflect the believe in core shared values and markets throughout the world but as history shows us, superpowers are the culturally dominant force. Britain had been that superpower for centuries but it was finally coming to an end, mainly due to the financial costs of world War II and the sudden demise of the British empire during the post war years. During the 1940's and 1950's, U.S music, Coca Cola and many other crazes had crossed over the Atlantic to Britain - just as they still do today. Tony Ray-Jones could see his country changing from an old empire based nation to a new modern nation, a nation no longer a superpower in the world. Britain was starting its journey towards becoming a modern, multicultural society. The old life was disappearing fast.
Alongside the documentary work, Tony Ray-Jones took portraits for magazines like the BBC's Radio Times and for the Sunday newspapers. The photographer remained in the UK , photographing all over the country, until 1970 when he decided to return to the USA to live and work. He took a job as a teacher at the San Francisco art institute but disliked the attitude of the students. In late 1971, Tony Ray-Jones started to suffer from exhaustion and it was in early 1972 that he found out he had leukemia. Medical costs in the USA were expensive so he returned to Britain for treatment. Sadly, on March 13th 1972, Tony Ray-Jones died at the young age of just 30 years old. His legacy is a photographic record of Britain starting to change into a modern nation. His images have style, wit and humour and are, rightly, compared to great work by photographers like Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Tony Ray-Jones captured the full character of the British as Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson had caught the French character. No other British photographer, including Don McCullin and his the Homecoming project, has ever come close to that achievement ,making the photography of Tony Ray-Jones a unique portrait of a Britain long gone.
All Images by Tony Ray-Jones
- Top left - Tony Ray-Jones
- Top right - A group of elderly people relax on the beach at Brighton, 1966
- Middle left - Ballroom, Morecambe, Lancashire, 1968.
- Bottom right - Opera fans relaxing at Glyndebourne, 1967