“I have tried to show the sadness and humour in a gentle madness that prevails in people. 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.”
With these words printed directly onto the cover of the book Tony Ray- Jones published by Boot in 2004, we finally get an extensive view into Jones’ world. Although there have been other titles of his work published this is by far the most handsome and informative yet. The design by Stuart Smith brings a fun contemporary feel to the whole package.
Dead from leukaemia by the time he was only thirty, he left an enduring mark on photography especially in England. The strength of the work was made accessible to other generations of photographers through the posthumously printed book A Day Off. The 120 photographs in A Day Off were made entirely in three years. 1967, 1968 and 1969 were very prolific years for this young artist. The photographs describe in documentary style, the English at the seaside, at summer carnivals, dancing and in the streets of London. Their most identifiable strength is Tony Ray-Jones’ signature flair for creating a complex order to the chaos of everyday British life.
After the introduction to the book, we are given a timeline of his life with important dates notated that make for an interesting read. He studied Graphic Design at Yale University’s School of Art with Paul Rand and Josef Albers, made two unsuccessful runs at becoming a member of Magnum Photos, once interviewed Brassai for Creative Camera magazine and befriended Alexey Brodovitch. At the end of the book there is an interview between Bill Jay who was the founder of Creative Camera and photographer Martin Parr discussing Tony and his lifework. Bill Jay relays a funny anecdote about first meeting Ray-Jones in the offices of Creative Camera magazine, Ray-Jones said “Your magazine’s shit, but I can see you’re trying. You just don’t know enough, so I am here to help you.”
Tony Ray-Jones’ entire career in photography is summed up in twelve years of work with three white hot ones when he was at the top of his game. Ray-Jones would be only 66 today if he hadn’t been cut down at such a young age. One can only wonder what we would be looking at had he been given the chance at thirty more years.
That is our loss, but this book holds tightly what he created until the end.
In 1990 Cornerhouse Publications released an edition of Tony Ray-Jones’ work on what would have been his fiftieth year had he lived. This is a decent book of his work, although it really suffers when compared to the Boot title. This title includes a few photographs of Ray-Jones’ years in the United States which is interesting to see and compare to his work done at home. It makes the mistake of including eight color photographs that mostly seem to have fallen out of his editorial portfolio and this brief encounter with color doesn't make sense, is distracting, and lowers the tone of the book. It houses 70 images and includes a few from very early on in his career.
A Day Off is also good in its offering up most of his best images but is flawed as a showcase for his work. The problem for me is that the photographs are grouped into subjects with chapters named “The seaside” and “Society” and “London.” The book then tends to read as simply literal groupings of separate images and the reader isn’t taken anywhere between the photographs.
Luckily we now have a better home for them as the photographs are too complex in their construction and commentary to have been so short changed for all these years.
Book Available Here