Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Only Baloney

I suppose the best way to start off this criticism of "ONLY IN ENGLAND" (a show that attempts to explore the relationships between the works of Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr) is to challenge Greg Hobson's opening remark in the pamphlet that accompanies this show - Tony Ray-Jones was the first British Photographer to successfully combine documentary photography traditions with a fine-art sensibility, making work that would change the face of British photography.

While I agree that Tony, like Bill Brandt before him, worked mightily and succeeded in marrying those qualities within their different approaches and subject matter, their efforts never really altered the face of photography in Britain. If they had done so, this nation would be awash with more such talents and a vastly improved institutional sensibility towards photography, which would have in turn created a multitude of new possibilities and opportunities for this medium and photographers. And we all know that has not yet come to pass - any more then a Britain free of division by class and tradition.

I would say, as would many others that it is Mr Parr who has altered the face and the substance of British photography, along others like him who think that the art of photography is purely in the approach not the result, and that what you think takes precedence over what you capture. It is unfair to blame the dead for the sins of the living, whose ambitions are far more for personal notoriety then the greater good of photography in Britain.

It would have been far more exciting, motivating, satisfying, and alluring, as well as astute, to have approached this celebration of Tony's influence in an appropriate way, instead of just using his short significant life in photography as a way of celebrating someone with no real connection to Tony and his understanding and his methodology which only makes less of Tony's contribution.

If we are to believe Greg Hobson's words, the most suitable way for him, Mr Parr and The National Media Museum to have approached this celebration would have been to exhibit the work of 10 or more photographers from over the last 40 years who claim Tony as an influence and would be willing to articulate that influence. This approach would go some way towards proving that Tony did influence British photography, and that the National Media Museum are committed to supporting and encouraging new talent and advancing this medium as an art form.

Alternatively, another sound way to celebrate Tony achievement would have been to explain and illustrate something of the "Who, What, When and Where" bulk of Tony's true influences, by showing firstly something of the key photographic ones, talents like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, the notables who triggered Tony's need for decisiveness, social commitment and visual perplexity, mixed in with a further assortment of other key cultural and painterly influences, both American and mainland European. This celebration should have also made it clear that Tony's creative engine for recording life was started by Alexey Brodovitch (1900-1971) and his "Design Laboratory" as a design student at Yale, well before Hank, Roberto and Garry made their influence felt, and that after that while working with Brodovitch in the Big Apple, where he was also infected by "The New York School".

I myself got the best of Brodovitch a year earlier outside Avedon's studio where he then held his sessions late at night in an off Broadway Automat. "The Brod" regularly reminded us all that he was only as good as his students, and stressed the importance of self discovery and not to imitate, which kind of came to mind again while looking at this current Media Space Presentation.

All these above mentioned particulars would have given a real picture of Tony's creative make up, while delivering an astute opening show, worthy of this new space and new centre. It would have done what shows of this kind are meant to deal with, making this experience a delight to the mind, eye and imagination of its audience, one that would also fire a new generation to both value and commit to Photography.

Instead we were given a lot of phoney baloney (Tony's polite way of saying bullshit) about how a friendship that never was, and a methodology that has nothing to do with Tony's way of approaching and commentating on existence by a photographer who claims so much respect and appreciation for Tony and his seeing, yet deliberately ignores the information and other evidence he left us and that is also clearly present in Tony's prints. The intention seems to be to convince us that Tony was primarily a forerunner of Mr Parr's more advanced thinking. The responsible way for the curators to proceed would have been to use that relevant information especially since neither of them knew Tony, or his mind-set.

If they had, they might have come to understand what Tony's prints clearly tell us, that Tony was in the doorway of new understanding that told him "The Negative" was simply the score and "The Print" was the performance" (see Time-Life Book "The Print" -1972) for he had came to understand, in my words "Just as a dance was a measured space, a verse a measured speech, an image was a measured observation". Tony chose to democratise the tonal values and other elements in his observations to give equal status to all the elements, and if Mr Parr and Mr Hobson had bothered to read Tony's prints and trust his judgements, or bothered to talk with me, his closest friend, they would have given us a true measure of the Man. Sadly, as I and many others see it, this was never the intension of this celebration, it was to celebrate Mr Parr as more then equal to Tony, confuse acquaintances with influences, while also making less of any facts that challenge existing institutional prejudice.

A third, easier and most relevant way to proceed to celebrate both Tony and influence, would have been to compare his and my own work as we not only shared a very similar interest in the English, but were also moulded by multitude of experiences, influences and professional friendships that are indisputable. This and the fact that I also played an active role in looking after Tony's interests and printing for many years, guided me some years ago to suggest to the Bradford Museum the validity of doing a show on theme of "England Perceived by Britain's Brodovitch Boys" (which would also included work by others including some of the key notables previously mentioned) giving the public a clear and honest view of how those influences impacted on both a Limey from Wells, Somerset and also a runaway Bronx Yankee. A show that would also be considerably less expensive then attempting to show the multitude of undeniable influences that helped to shape Tony's vision, with the added bonus that would come out of comparing Tony with another locally active talent forearmed with the same unique external influences, committed to the same subject at approximately the same time, with a similar intent and outcome in mind. Such a twinning as this would provide a logical reason for some real comparison, as well as be educational and extremely entertaining.

I can only conclude that all in power at Bradford could not see the value of such a blend and also disliked any references to external influence and thus did not want such truths mentioned. I assume that to them, keeping photography in Britain British was more important then presenting a fully informed, interesting and challenging experience. As I see it, none of that mattered, for Mr. Parr’s celebrity profile ticked all their boxes, and would do more to put this new Media Space and Media Museum on the map, then a showing of two fraternal twins, triggered externally to catch and project images of relevant substance.

Instead we got, aside from Tony's originals in room one, an irrelevant new selection of Tony's already rejected snaps and a larger but poorer printing of Tony's classics that clearly lacked any attempt to take on board his printing philosophy. They put their trust in Mr. Parr's belief in himself and his stated vast experience as a photographer and curator. Subsequently what we actually experienced was a simplistic pairing of a voiced observer with an unchallenging eye, which never came together as a relevant or meaningful experience for me and many knowledgeable others.

I knew Tony well enough to say that he would never had agreed to this ridiculous pairing, that it only come to pass because he wasn't here to stop it. As a fiercely Independent and outspoken individual Tony had no time for the partial truths and clap-trap that was voiced and written to garnish his imagery, that I believe was used to create a bridge that does not support the weight of its proposal.

If this Media Space and the National Media Museum is hoping to gain a growing minded audience as well as some external legitimacy, it had better follow up this fiasco with something more worthy in terms of complete, relevant and coherent content, because as the world shrinks in terms quicker and easier access to information, it will get harder and harder to survive this kind of indignation from both serious photographers and a informed photographic public.

Mr Parr must think of the public as cattle, that will go where he herds them, and that they will accept his twaddle as fact and so disregard what their eyes comprehend, a clear lack of attention to relevant information and evidential detail which tells us that the respect he claims to have for Tony is a sham, and he is merely attempting to claim Tony as an early apostle of the banal, the understated, the irrelevant, and the accidental.

As I see it, the only similarities that exist between Tony's English seeing and Mr Parr's early seeing is that both these bodies of work represented their beginnings. However Tony's early influences, unlike Mr Parr's, was trans-Atlantic in nature, excited by some European and American masters, like Bruegel, Baltus, Bunuel, Goya, and Hopper, as well as the beginnings of other aspects of the cultural ethos of the land of plenty, all mixed in with photographers, again predominately European and American, all rushing to gain a place within his seeing. But as we all can see, nothing of this kind is visible in Mr Parr's early work (or his current work), which is probably why he is looking to claim Tony as an influence.

We can only speculate about what and where Tony would have gone on to achieve. Had he lived, I personally believe he would have returned to America yet again, because he had no patience for the restrictive nepotistic practices that still plague these islands. Mr Parr, as we know, did go on to develop an interest in the seaside, colouring those at the waters’ edge with a bolder, blunter, harsher vision, before moving on to poke his camera at his own rank, with richer colour, that spoilt himself even more then his subjects.

Tony, like me, may not have always had an image approach in mind when he first sighted something interesting developing before him, but he did have a kindness towards people and a rich vocabulary to call on in order to help him define what he was thinking and feeling. I don't get that looking at a Parr moment, and his humour, if we can call it that seems, to my eye to be at the subject’s expense. With Tony, there's was also concern for where the edges fell, most especially in busy observations, which Mr Parr lacks.

The only similarities that can be seen to exist between Mr Parr's early work and the English aspect of Tony's early work, is that they both worked using available light, employing a rangefinder camera loaded with monochrome film, with a preference for wide angle lens. Since that time Mr Parr has moved up to using larger cameras and colour film stock, but still today, as I and others see it, there is no evidence of attitude or substance similarity existing between them.

Tony had a clearly defined motivation behind the moments he chased, and always precisely positioning all the elements in his framing towards that end, and he instantly knew when to take a moment from time, which was, incidentally only when all those elements and his mind-set coalesced to reflect his intent and personality, and no one element or aspect in that selected instant, was regarded or projected as more important then the rest, and all those quality's were visible in his finished prints.
Mr Parr's, imagery on the other hand, as I attempt to seek meaning reflects nothing like that, but they do reveal a negativity towards people and a since of timing that reinforces that. So for me and many others there is no warmth or generosity within them, and as for message its written or spoken before or afterwards, and that's the fundamental difference that distinguishes his snappings from Tony's art, and seeing him twinned with Tony is like attempting to mix oil and water.

I've come to understand all that I know about Tony and his approach to seeing, first and foremost came from our many lengthy conversations throughout our relatively short friendship and secondly thought personally attempting (with marginal success) to reflect his values, via several major printings of his imagery after his demise. Now I must say, even though we were so close, it was still difficulty for me to replicate his outlook. But for someone guided only by what he read and lacking the familiarity of firsthand knowledge of Tony and his aspiration, this marriage was never going to be read as one of mutual love and respect, but simply one of convenience for Mr Parr's publicity plan. The clincher for me and for most came when Mr Parr decided to proceed without regard for Tony's thinking in both his selection and translation on this nation’s inheritance.

The most worrying things to come out of this fairytale presentation, was that Mr. Parr was actually allowed to ignore Tony's notes and evaluation markings, and giving the opportunity also to give us his non-existing insight into a person he never knew, and to my knowledge never even met, simply because of his celebrity and his claimed vast experience as a photographer, collector and curator. This surely tells us that this will not be the last we see of this kind of "Play School" tampering activity emanating from this new Bradford centre for media. This in turn makes this museum archive the last place I, or for that matter any other seriously committed photographer would want to see his or her archive wind up. It also gets me wondering whose body of work will be the next victim, and who will be their next "Kindergarten Cop"? And for the Science Museum to openly associate itself with this kind of disrespectful and dangerous tom-foolery is almost like saying they've decided to join "The Flat Earth Society".

As it is, the National Media Museum has already attempted to create yet another distortion, by telling us that these 50 new images chosen by Mr Parr were taken from 2,500 contact sheets and the 90,000 thousand images in the museums collection, signifying that firstly Tony was prolific, and secondly that they actually had 90,000 images that Tony valued in there collection.

Where these numbers may be true, the facts are quite different, for if these figures did represented the real nature of Tony contribution, just think what a wonderful catch it would be for the National Media Museum to have my archive. Using the same basic fact-math to calculate my contribution regarding my activity behind my camera from 1960-2006, I almost exactly shot 64,000 rolls of film, which would translate to 2,304,000 exposures (which by the way relates only to the amount of negatives I shot, not to transparencies or prints I or anyone may have made). But I still have to account for the 7 years working digitally after that, to bring this exact figure up to date. So I added another 5 % to that figure, and came out with a total figure of 2,419,600 images. Now although these figures are also true, they are also bullshit, for they do not represent the reality of Tony's achievement or mine, and any individual or institution using them in that way has no idea of the wastage incurred in the process of attempting to capture a distilled moment that reflects excellence, or they are also part of this deception. In fact it is generally accepted that if one could just manage to capture one such moment per every roll of film shot, one would be considered a genius. I've got to tell you now that Tony was no genius, and neither am I.

Reading the lines before, between, and after the images in this flawed presentation, some might be convinced that Tony was just an early prophet of Mr. Parr's methodology, but most that I talked with thought there was little reason to move beyond the first room displaying Tony's original prints (and this, for me was the most hopeful sign that I retrieved from this attempted hood-winking exercise.) I myself, entering room 3, felt these additional cold and mostly irrelevant prints (selected by Parr, and printed by whoever) were only the shell of someone who was alive only moments before. Putting it yet another way, it was like being offered tasteless fast food after having just experienced a Master Chef’s exquisitely prepared three course meal, so not surprisingly I had no appetite for this poorly chosen irrelevant excess.

Mr Parr may have been amongst the first to project himself as an "Independent Photographer", but I'm still waiting to see some sign of it. I suspect he equates his self employed freelance status with independence. I recall him on more then one occasion, voicing his disregard for the English photographic establishment, while it was clearly obvious, and not just to me, that he was seeking membership. So today, as a consequence of this that effort, he is more connected to the establishment then a bicycle wheel has spokes to its centre. Tony on the other-hand always said exactly what he thought, and that's just another reason why we quickly became such good close friends, and also why he only began to be regarded after death denied him his voice.

Tony's newly found commitment to photography in America is made us almost immediately fraternal intellectual twins, because he discovered the idealism that American photographers grew up with, which despite the everyday commercial abuses of practices in all camps of photographic activity, still exists today in American photography.

However on his return to England, he was shocked to discover that this idealism was not present here, and our common perception of this made us understand and value each other despite our different cultural backgrounds. Especially after he had taken his first good look at the way photographers who stood their ground were treated in this much more conservative and less informed culture, where the minimalist practices of photojournalism, advertising and fashion photography were even narrower and more restrictive than in the Big Apple. His strong criticism was condemned by the photographic establishment who felt that he had views above his station.

If Tony hadn't been taken from us, he would today be regarded by the establishment here as even less relevant then me, as I was and still remain kinder in my criticisms. Yet being the friend he was, when he left England for the second time, he was concerned about me staying on, and tried to encourage me to return with him, knowing what was also going to be my fate. For some time afterwards he dropped me the occasional post cards telling me to come to California because he had some teaching and was also putting forward assignment ideas and getting some regular work. But I had a young family to support and to tell the truth, I could already see the handwriting on the wall for that kind of working, even before I came to Britain in 1965.

Getting back to the forced pairing in this show, the only winners to come out of this fiasco are Mr Parr, who managed to make less of more, and get himself a free history make-over in the process, as well as to come away looking like a caring patron of the arts, and Greg Hobson who also gets what he believes to be some good publicity for the museum, and possibly another chance to de-value yet another of its archives.

In closing, it doesn't require the input of a Rhodes Scholar to discern that Mr Parr's images have nothing to do with Tony's approach to recording in general or observing the English more specifically, except for the camera and film stock that they both once used. I also know that this arranged marriage of personal convenience would never have been consented to by Tony, and he would have left both Mr Hobson & Mr Parr at the altar of this mischievous invention had he lived. My concern now is that this imagined connection is irrelevant to Tony's achievement, and in no way related to Mr Parr's effort, so it should be annulled by the museum, citing "irreconcilable differences". The quickest way to achieve that would be to immediately remove Mr Parr's insensitive extra pick of Tony's already rejected saplings, and all references spoken or written by Mr Parr regarding Tony's state of mind, being that they have no foundation in fact.

This needs to be done, if this new museum wants its photographic archive to be seriously regarded, not just by its immediate public but in the national and international art community, who as far as I'm aware won't take very kindly to "Inaccurate and/or incomplete information". This is the type of bad news that travels extremely fast in today's world of quick easy access to full and accurate detail. It would also be a good move to add some more sensitive, knowledgeable and interested personnel to its existing staff.

John Benton-Harris © 1/29/14

Author's Footnote Images

John Benton-Harris photographed the 1970 Bath Festival with & Tony Ray-Jones