Sitting on a windswept beach in our coats, eating sandwiches wrapped in tin foil – can there by a more British image? This delightful exhibition of Tony Ray-Jones photographs in the Science Museum’s new Media space is a fascinating insight into, predominantly, working class life in the 50s and 60s. It’s divided into three sections, the first are Ray-Jones photographs of the English at leisure, followed by Martin Parr’s images of northern community, and finally Parr’s selection of lesser-known Ray-Jones pictures.
Ray-Jones wanted to photograph the peculiarity of everyday British life and made lists of characteristics, and traditions that he wanted to capture. In this period, he felt there was a growing Americanisation of international culture, and his English seaside images particularly attempt to record what he thought was a disappearing way of life. From bored beauty queens preparing to go on stage, to a thunderous child at a carnival, to some very grumpy people around a beachfront arcade game, these are images full of nostalgic warmth for his subjects but emphasising the absurdity or quirkiness of the scene. Many of his photographs have two subjects; you’re often first drawn to the centre or foreground, before you see the second, usually more humorous, focus. People are also arranged a different angles to each other which moves your eye around the full scene, creating nicely contrasting areas.
Many of the photos look random rather than posed, with the subjects or groups engaged in different tasks, generally oblivious of one another. They each have an individual narrative but at the same time are united in that moment by the photograph and their shared English customs. Although the individual dramas have a hint of melancholy, Ray-Jones, inspired by seaside postcards, still manages to convey a slightly mischievous humour, an affectionate wink that’s never mocking.
This exhibition is also punctuated by a room of works by Martin Parr who, openly acknowledging the influence of Ray-Jones, has documented life in a rural Yorkshire community in the 1970s. The two artists sit well together, although Parr’s approach is more formal and felt a little more detached. His work is also focused on the nature of a specific religious community and in particular the local Methodist and Baptist churches. There’s something almost austere about these pictures as he captures the cold silence of people at prayer. This is less an anonymous crowd drawn together by chance one day, as an insight into a community where everyone is known and revealed in a different kind of social coming together. Putting them next to Ray-Jones emphasises their shared documentary style, but also the interesting differences between them.
This is a great exhibition to launch the Science Museum’s new media space, and one of the best photography exhibitions I’ve seen in London for a while. The Tony Ray-Jones images alone are worth the visit, but then, having grown up by the sea on a diet of fish and chips, Carry Ons and gentle sitcoms, the content of his work feels very familiar. The English still head for the beach come rain or shine, determined to enjoy (or endure) it – so perhaps that way of life hasn’t changed so very much after all.
Only in England is at the Science Museum’s Media Space until 16 March. Tickets are £8 and concessions are available.