I took the day off work today to revisit the ‘Only in England’ exhibition at the Science Museum in London today. The exhibition draws to a close this weekend having been on since last September. I visited last November and, despite having had two hours in the gallery back then, I felt it wasn’t enough.
The exhibition was a joint show with photos by Martin Parr and Tony Ray-Jones. I was aware of Martin Parr, having bought his, ‘Think of England’ publication some time ago. I bought it at a time that I was becoming aware of street photography as a genre – spontaneous photos taken of everyday situations with the subjects often unaware that they’re the subject of the picture. Martin Parr’s shots, particularly in that collection, emphasise the everyday in British society; the traditions, the conventions, the gatherings, the situations, the people, and he’s continually drawn to the British seaside as a source of inspiration and saturated technicolour. It seems inevitable as a northern lad brought up by the sea, who enjoys the wonderful sadness evident in English seaside resorts, that his aesthetic would appeal to me, particularly having been subconsciously been brought up on a diet of Oscar Marzaroli.
I knew nothing of Tony Ray-Jones, but he was an inspiration to Martin Parr, and part of the point of the show was to compare the style of each, particularly in Parr’s earliest work, ‘The Non-Conformists’, in 1970s Yorkshire. However, Ray-Jones died, aged 30, in 1972 of leukaemia at a point in his career when he was being recognised as a new and unique talent. Parr had been asked to look through his legacy and bring to the world unseen pictures alongside his iconic images. The focus of these shots was a period at the end of the 1960s when Ray-Jones spent a lot of time at the British seaside, including in Morecambe, my home town.
I’d expected the exhibition to be of interest, but many of the shots – by both photographers – are stunning. All in black and white, and all taken from an age long gone, they are evocative, melancholic, humorous and revealing, often in a single picture. Ray-Jones’ particular talent was to find a subject for a picture and place it in the middle of the scene and then gradually take the viewer to the edges of the shots where other stories would exist. The shots open up, evoke tales, bring questions to the observer. They are so well composed that they act like films as they enter your mind. This one is typical – see the boy and the dog and then see all around them. There’s so much going on, caught expertly in a moment. And without the benefit of digital cameras. It’s true genius and artistry.
Parr’s pictures were focused around life in Hebden Bridge circa 1977 – street parties, football games, church gatherings, workers in sad looking factories, kids playing in the street, dogs running free, old ladies in hats and horn-rimmed glasses drinking tea in huddles. I found myself thinking of my grandparents and being reminder of my own experience of the Silver Jubilee, of a time before we were attached to phones and social media and demanded constant entertainment and all our information RIGHT NOW..
But, as Parr himself observes, we cannot become hostages to nostalgia. As we look back and believe what is lost was better (it wasn’t) the next generation will look back at our pictures and be envious too.