The eccentricity of the English is explored in the first art exhibition at the new Media Space at the Science Museum. Joining the "art in museums" trend, this new space will explore where art and science meet: through the imagination of these inquisitive minds.
On a recent trip through the countryside, on a B-road somewhere between Preston and Bradley Wiggins' hometown of Eccleston, I stumbled across a bizarre sight gracing driveways and lining curbs. I had entered the local scarecrow festival, an ode to everyone's favourite guardsman. People had really gone to town with their creations: scarecrow wake boarders, witches, stuffed farmers seated on tractors, a chef seated outside the local pub, a sleeping child with a large teddy bear for company. And, although they are not without their uncanny connotations, the occasion reminded me of the quirky humour and eccentricities that's often found around England. This new exhibition celebrates these sorts of national eccentricities through the photographic work of Tony Ray-Jones and his better-known contemporary Martin Parr.
Parr has acted as both curator and photographer to bring this show together. He has selected known works by Tony Ray-Jones, as well as delved into his archive at the National Media Museum in Bradford to select over 55 previously unseen works. The selection is exceptional and the work on display both fascinating and insightful. Ray-Jones was a great British talent but sadly died at the devastatingly young age of 30. Despite this, there is still a wealth of work that has been preserved and his legacy is plain to see in the early work of Martin Parr, The Nonconformists, which is displayed alongside his in the space.
Parr worked during his early career in Hebdon Bridge, ingratiating himself to the local community for some years – a period that allowed him space to develop his own style and shy away from the London scene that could have compromised his practice. Concentrating on the non-conformist churches around the west Yorkshire area, the resulting collection is a keen look into local life.
The exhibition is an intriguing look at the techniques of street photography and it is particularly surprising to hear that both photographers did not stage or direct any of the shots. All events and actions occurred simultaneously to create that moment they captured. Ray-Jones was the first proponent in the UK to embark on this kind of photography. After earning a scholarship to study at Yale, Jones spent some time working in New York. He learned the art of street photography from his American counterparts and transported what he knew about capturing the theatre of the street over to English communities: a fresh approach that hadn't been seen in England before.
The exhibition focuses on the legacy of Jones and influence he had over Parr, and whilst the two photographers have their independent styles – Parr has an obvious pleasure in perspective and angles within the frame – the similarities of subject matter are heartwarming. It is a pleasure to see such talented photographers in the same show, who share a similar sensitivity to their subject. Tony Ray-Jones' famously rejected the technical process in favour of dedication to the subject matter.
There is more than just photographs in the exhibition: the curating team have been keen to show the method behind the works, as well as the gruelling selection process that goes into working with this kind of photography. A fascinating wall of negatives cover the far end of the exhibition and many of Tony Ray-Jones sketchbooks and 'plans' describe what he wanted to get from his days out taking pictures. This wall also provides a unique opportunity to see what was left out of the final cut. What did Tony Ray-Jones feel was a good photo in the 1960s? What does Parr believe now is worthy of display? The answers are on here somewhere, as well as the hard work and patience it takes to be a street photographer. This is an exhibition not to be missed.