Fragments of thought from visiting Liverpool, number 1.

10 Apr

The Girl On the Contact Sheet – Some comments on “Only in England” at the Walker Gallery. 

She’s there three times over. And the shots are straight into her face. Nobody else gets that much attention from the camera of Tony Ray-Jones.

What caused him to lose his artistic focus in those few moments? Certainly this woman has a beautiful face. But when photographing a beauty contest, he’s sparse in the photos he takes: pausing seconds and hours so he can catch the most profoundly poignant unguarded yawn.

This is of a piece with the instructions he wrote to himself in one of his notebooks. I didn’t have notebook, camera or pen with me on this visit, so I’m probably paraphrasing. Two of my favourites, though, were “Don’t take boring photos”, and – concluding the list and in contrasting coloured pen as if for emphasis – “no middle distance”. Another artistic command-to-self on the same page (which only an obsessive could really benefit from or struggle with) was to take fewer pictures.

His priorities are immaculately professional. He appears to have devoted his working life to getting the perfect shot, rather than to getting it on.

Except, perhaps, for those three short clicks.

Martin Parr on the other hand, appears from the evidence here, to have decided way in advance what he and his camera would see of England’s Nonconformists, and to have required few photos to capture it.

We catch no unguarded moments of couples snogging outside the chapel window on the bleak oh-so-Northern hillsides, no accidental proofs of youth or light or sun compromising the greyness of the black and white picture. Even though it’s the 1970s in these pictures, there are no long-haired kids on racers with handlebars turned up, no Cortina-driving Lotharios, no graffiti, no life.

There are beaters and hunters on the moors; and the last generation of chapel-goers photographed without their families, without love, and without wit.  The old, in these shots, are eccentric at best. They do not speak to us, and it is hard to believe that they ever had voices.

This is the second time I’ve seen this exhibition.  The first time was last year in Bradford, close by the old heartlands of English Nonconformity.   There, just like in Liverpool, the punters looked intently at Parr’s work, seeking hard for something to relate to; but turned away, having found only boring photos.

Then they laughed and pointed and smiled at Ray-Jones’ pictures, and told each other stories and jokes about themselves and their grandparents; and “that time in New Brighton when”. The stories were mesmerising and the jokes were funny, and everybody was immortal.

Just like the yawning beauty queen and the girl with the Dansette.

When Was England?

“Only in England” is an inaccurate title – or perhaps an oddly revealing one – in several ways. I’ll note four here.

  1. Ray-Jones studied, and formed his ideas about the social role of photography, in America. He may, as far as he was concerned, have been fighting the Americanisation of culture – but his way of doing it was through an Americanised artistic culture.
  1. Not all the photographs were taken ‘in’ England. Some were from Wales, and one from the Isle of Man. None were from Scotland or Northern Ireland. Even Americans knew those places weren’t in England.
  1. There’s a great deal of seaside featured. The culture of the ‘English’ seaside may have been unique – but a momentary glance at the cover of ‘Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.’ shows that uniqueness to be less unique than you’d think. Similarly, Cuxhaven and Hunstanton in the off-season are alike in the way that football grounds and multi-storey carparks everywhere resemble each other.
  1. ‘England’ is a small and shrinking country these days. It doesn’t even definitely include Liverpool anymore, as the Walker and Liverpool Echo‘s tie-in competition neatly and unintentionally demonstrates.

It’s called ‘Only in Merseyside’.

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