Only in England

Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr
Walker Art Gallery
Till 7th June 2015

Reviewed by Steve Lamb

Galleries now feature photography exhibitions quite regularly. It would therefore seem that the days of photography not being considered a serious art form are behind us. Indeed, if art is supposed to reflect or comment on life, there is possibly no other medium so candid.

This exhibition features two pioneering British photographers who could be considered forerunners of what is now called ‘street photography’. It proves that this is not new – it’s been around for a long time, just without the label. Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr starkly capture parochial Britain of the 1960s and 70s.

The exhibition is a kind of lament to an England that no longer exists. Factory workers, holiday camps, beauty contests, Methodist chapels, bottle kicking competitions, and bizarre local customs, are all captured with great warmth but with the impact and mercilessness of black and white.

Tony Ray Jones’ note to himself in 1965 is featured, and his photographic manifesto has not dated in the slightest – be aggressive, avoid clichés, and keep it simple. This ethos is reflected in his work; the pictures are completely unpretentious and also powerful.

I was even more impressed with Martin Parr’s work from the 1970s. Some of his shots are rather melancholic; not that this is a bad thing. Timeless shots of people in humdrum situations in a bleak and deprived England need to be seen.

The way of life featured in this exhibition has been swept away by the new ultra fast, digital, consumerist, and globalised world. The 70s were dark days for Britain but people who remember them may pine for this simpler time. However, they will almost certainly recognise grim similarities to the Britain we now find ourselves in.

70s Britain was on a precipice; credit was becoming more widespread and the modern world was on its way. We have now got it, and this exhibition shows the simple lives and close communities we have lost.


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