The influence of Tony Ray-Jones's groundbreaking street photographs has increased in the four decades since his death. David Clark looks at the life and work of the British photographer

In his brief but productive life, Tony Ray-Jones created a distinctive and highly influential body of work. In particular, he is praised for his photographs of the English at leisure in the 1960s, which display his wryly humorous, subtle observations of the English character. His idiosyncratic eye, as he himself recognised, created a unique vision of the world.

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Contact sheet of portraits of Tony Ray-Jones taken by Ainslie Eliis in the late 1960s © SSPL/Getty Images

‘I have tried to show the sadness and humour in a gentle madness that prevails in people,’ Ray-Jones famously remarked. ‘The situations are sometimes ambiguous and unreal, and the juxtapositions of elements seemingly unrelated, and yet the people are real. This, I hope, helps to create a feeling of fantasy. 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 the looking glass, and find another kind of world with the camera.’

Tony Ray-Jones was the youngest son of Raymond Ray-Jones, a well-known painter and etcher who died when Tony was eight months old. He first started experimenting with photography while studying graphic design at the London College of Printing. He was encouraged by his photography teacher, Rolf Brandt, who introduced him to his brother, the photographer Bill Brandt. Ray-Jones recalled that his photos ‘made Brandt laugh a little, they amused him,’ and he advised him to ‘get in closer.’

After the course, Ray-Jones won a scholarship to study in the US, at Yale University in Connecticut, but while he was there his interest in photography grew. He met the influential photographer and designer Alexey Brodovitch and later attended classes at his Design Laboratory in New York. Brodovitch’s emphasis on freshness in visual expression had a major influence on Ray-Jones. Soon after graduating from Yale in 1964, Ray-Jones started to work as a freelance photographer.

Ramsgate, Kent, 1971. Tony Ray-Jones recorded the unguarded moments of people from all sections of British society in his own distinctive and very individual style. ©SSPL/Getty Images

New York’s dynamic photographic community provided an enormous stimulus to Ray-Jones’s work and he got to know many of the emerging generation of US photographers, including Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz. The latter became a good friend and they often went out together to hone their skills in photographing events such as street parades.

Ray-Jones returned to England in 1966. ‘I had been away for five years and came back with a foreigner’s outlook, as well as that of a native,’ he later wrote. ‘This prompted me to concentrate on my own projects.’ English customs and traditions, the pronounced class system and the eccentricities of English behaviour all took on a new fascination for him. The following year he began working on the body of work for which he is best remembered, a project on the English at leisure.

For the next three years, in between newspaper assignments, Ray-Jones made many trips around the country in a VW camper van with his girlfriend (and later wife) Anna Coates. Using his Leica M, he photographed seaside beauty contests, opera at Glyndebourne, tennis at Wimbledon, Crufts, the Dickens Festival at Broadstairs, holidaymakers at Butlin’s and many other local events around the country.

During this time, he began his association with Creative Camera magazine. In 1968, Ray-Jones (described as a ‘frizzy-haired guy with a Fu Manchu moustache’) walked into the magazine’s offices with a portfolio of unpublished images from the UK and USA. He made an immediate impression on the editor, Bill Jay.

‘Your magazine’s s**t,’ Ray-Jones told him, ‘but I can see you’re trying. You just don’t know enough, so I am here to help you.’ On this occasion, the combination of arrogance and a strong portfolio of images led to the publication of his photos and a subsequent friendship with Jay. At other times, Ray-Jones’s outspoken opinions led to arguments with magazine editors and other photographers.

When his images were published in Creative Camera in October 1968, Ray-Jones wrote: ‘My aim is to communicate something of the spirit and the mentality of the English, their habits and their way of life, the ironies that exist in the way they do things, partly through tradition and partly through the nature of their environment and mentality… For me there is something very special and rather humorous about the “English way of life” and I wish to record it from my particular point of view.’

However, his proposed book on the English met with little interest from publishers and in 1971 Ray-Jones accepted a teaching post at the San Francisco Art Institute. He supplemented this work with freelancing and experimenting with his own colour photography. He was also considering a move into films.

Books And Websites

Books: Tony Ray-Jones, by Russell Roberts (published by Chris Boot) gives a good overview of the photographer’s life and work. Other Ray-Jones books, including A Day Off: An English Journal and Tony Ray-Jones: A Retrospective View are available second-hand on www.amazon.co.uk.

Websites: A collection of Ray-Jones’s photographs can be seen on www.scienceandsociety.co.uk (in the ‘Collections’ section). The library also offers Ray-Jones prints for sale at reasonable prices. Further information about Ray-Jones’s life can be found on www.weepingash.co.uk.

Image: Dog owner with is clipped poodle at Crufts dog show, London, 1968 © SSPL/Getty Images

This new phase in his life was short-lived. At the end of the year he was suffering from exhaustion and in January 1972 was diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia.

Treatment in the US was too expensive, so he flew back to England on 10 March 1972. Three days later, he died.

Ray-Jones was, at his death, little-known outside photography circles. His obituary in Creative Camera said he was ‘a photographer apart from photographers – in many ways an outlaw in his own medium’. However, in the four decades since, Ray-Jones’s reputation has steadily grown and his influence is apparent in the work of many of today’s street photographers and photojournalists.

Ray-Jones’s own life was cut tragically short, but others have followed where he led. One of the best-known photographers to cite Ray-Jones as a major influence is Martin Parr. ‘His pictures were about England,’ Parr said in The Guardian in 2004. ‘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.’

Biography

  • 1941: Born Holroyd Anthony Ray-Jones in Somerset on 7 June
  • 1942: His father, the painter and etcher Raymond Ray-Jones, commits suicide after suffering from depression
  • 1950s: Attends Christ’s Hospital boarding school in Horsham, West Sussex
  • 1957: Studies graphic design at the London College of Printing
  • 1961: Begins a scholarship at Yale University, studying for a Masters in Fine Arts, but starts to focus more on photography
  • 1966: Returns to England and the following year begins a three-year project to document the English at leisure
  • 1969: First major exhibition of his work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, as part of a group show with Don McCullin, Dorothy Bohm and Enzo Ragazzini
  • 1971: Works as a visiting lecturer at the San Francisco Art Institute, but begins to suffer from exhaustion and is later diagnosed with leukaemia
  • 1972: Dies on 13 March at the Royal Marsden Hospital, London, aged 30
  • 1974: Ray-Jones’s only book, A Day Off: An English Journal, is published posthumously