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Book review

Tony Ray Jones – American Colour


80 pagesBR
45 colour plates
20 cm x 20 cm
Hardcover with dustjacket
Publication date: September 2013
€25.00 £20.00 $30.00
ISBN 9781907946554

I’ve been out buying books again, Tony Ray Jones is a photography hero of mine, I discovered him while writing an essay about photography and british culture. I was struck that his 1973 book “A Day Off” stood perfectly between the imperial Bill Brandt and the garish work of Martin Parr. I was captivated by the book because Ray-Jones address subjects like tradition, class systems, modern (as it was then) culture and other social themes from a british perspective. The images are always interesting, sometimes cutting and often humourous. Sadly my budget doesn’t stretch to the £800+ out of print copy I saw, well priced too – as I believe Tony Ray Jones to be a pioneer of british social documentary. Do note that although I’m not reviewing this part of his work there’s an excellent retrospective compiled by Martin Parr (and including some of Parrs Early work) at the Science Museum.

Naturally hearing a ‘sketchbook’ of his earlier work, American Colour, had been released by the publishers MACK I was very happy – (I can afford £20).  I was very curious about American Colour to see the images from Ray-Jones’ early career.

Tony Ray Jones – American Colour

Although working for CBS in New York as a graphic designer / art director, Ray Jones had a depth of understanding of the medium of photography was hanging around with Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand in New York taking pictures. It must be remembered in the early 1960’s the creative photography scene was very much on the outside of the “art Establishment” and colour photography was on the outside of the creative photography scene. To illustrate further Martin Parr expressed his belief that the use of colour film was rejected by an ‘old guard’ of photographers in the UK until the 1980’s.

This collection of colour images is very successful in portraying a New York of the time, they often also betray his graphic design background in the way he uses composition and order. But why did Ray Jones work in black and white for England, and colour for this earlier American work? Here’s a quote from him on the subject;

I found America a very colour-conscious country. Colour is very much part of their culture, and they use it in crazy ways. You look down Madison Avenue at lunchtime and the colours just vibrate.
Tony Ray-Jones

1851bdff74c5a4162bb6c771490777dcI believe this to be true – having been to the US the two things that strike me are always the country’s colour and scale – both are very different from that here in the UK.

Even though New York photographer Saul Leiter was unknown at the time, so it’s unlikely Ray-Jones would have been aware of his photography work, there are parallels between Leiter‘s and Ray-Jones’ photographic work, For example use of structure, content and technique – such as playing with foreground, middle ground and background, and focusing on small sections of a larger image . However, images in “American Colour’ were also created about the time of Robert Franks’ groundbreaking work “The Americans” – which Ray-Jones would have been aware of, see the images of the biker fro an example.

This book appears to have parallels with the beauty of Leiters work and contains some of the documentary of Robert Frank – although compared to A Day Off. It’s a softer version, considering cultural observations without Franks often cold eye and considering beauty without the extreme abstraction of Leiter – it also definitely borrows from Ray-Jones’ graphic training. Tony Ray Jones has has own observations, where he uses his cultural, professional and photographic references to ask, “How does the New York / American experience reveal itself”.

I think its a beautiful book, in each image outsider Ray-Jones examines ‘american-ness’, curious about a countries aesthetics, perspective and people – and although it doesn’t have the sheer documentary brilliance of “A Day Off” it is an illustration of a great british photographers early development moving from design, commercial art-drectionand into an emerging style which was both surprising and thrilling.

Saul Lieter
Robert Frank (From the Americans)
Tony Ray Jones – American Colour

Book Review – Helen Levitt

BRI wrote some time ago about one of my lecturers stating that pictures that had a sense of humour were cheesy. I remember because, well firstly obviously I wrote it, but secondly that I didn’t agree at all. Well, in my endless pursuit of spending money I bought the following book, which is shrewdly observed, manages to be both complex and simple at the same time and has some beautifully captured humorous moments.

Well, it’s this book on the work of HELEN LEVITT:

HELEN LEVITT / Powerhouse Books Brooklyn NY / 2008(?) / Amazon UK Link 

The book may seems expensive, especially if you view it online, but it’s huge probably 35cm x 35cm. It’s also stuffed with work, in it Helen Levitt Captures New York streetlife for, well as the amazon description states “combining seven decades of New York City street life with Levitt’s seminal work in Mexico City”. So that’s what we have, but its not a case of quantity over quality, you can see why each photo has been included.

Street photography is something that I find really interesting for three reasons, firstly that its anthropological; it studies the way we live – that this is driven by the photographers curiosity (Levitt was a school teacher who began photography to study chalk drawings and the children associated with them), secondly  Its interesting how it dates; how its culturally different and how it seems so obvious its not our time. Finally, to return to that lecturers statement, that street photography is permitted to have a sense of humour (not that it always does – its just permitted to).

Special Spaghetti – Helen Levitt

Please don’t misunderstand me, I heard recently from photojournalist Seb Meyer in a talk ‘its important to convey a range of emotions’. I think there is a tendency to focus on the misery in images. The thought being is that this gives them weight. But relentlessly pushing a set of difficult images with no relief just becomes dull after a while. So, just like using contrasting colours in a painting, showing a full spectrum of emotions in a collection makes the experience more humanising and accessible, it makes an rounded story.

Levitt has her own range. In addition to humour she shows a tenderness, playfulness, fun, beauty, contrast but most of all I think she is a great humaniser, she captures character; Children, the elderly, women with their curlers in, men in vests, the down and out, dispossessed and the badly dressed. She shows character of people but also the personality of the streets and neighbourhoods she works in.

Its also Interesting to she her shifting between black and white and colour, and back again. Levitt was in the exhibition Henri cartier Bresson – A Question Of Colour at Somerfield house which I reviewed earlier this year. Starting so early its no surprise she began with black and white. Her composition is excellent but when it comes to colour film she picks up on how colour works instinctively, often making it the theme of a picture, where some would have struggled with using it at all.

This picture was in the ‘Henri Cartier Bresson-a question of colour exhibition’ at Somerset House

Looking at her book as a social document I wonder how the character of people has changed. Perhaps it’s due to living in London but it’s hard to imagine having the opportunity to photograph people being themselves with their guard down. People with their curlers in – well, that might have still happened in the late 1980’s, do children even play in the street anymore? God, I must get out of London and find out. Or have we changed our relationship with the world because of cameras, because of media. Is this because of the scrutiny the lens puts us under, the one that leads to us self-scrutinising – in a way no one feels entirely comfortable with?

It’s also interesting because Levitt’s eye is kind, playful. She’s not making the type of statement that someone like Diane Arbus makes with her portraits. She’s observing life in her time, but in a timeless way, and I find that fascinating.


Photobook Review: I dont warna grow up

BRWell guess who just got paid..? So, to part with some cash before it all went on dull practical things, off i went to Claire De Rouen, in my opinion Londons best photography bookshop. Better than the Photographers Gallery (who just sent a circular saying they have many more books than those on display), better than Koenig – as I said, in my opinion  Partly because the staff are amazing – and very well informed – partly because they hold quality contemporary publications. So there.

I bought two books, but I’m going to talk about this one:

I don’t warna grow up | Sean Vegezzi | Seventeen –  Nineteen | 1st edition 1000 | 2012 | £25

On the tube home I was nervous about buying this book, I went to Claire De Rouen with another book entirely on my mind. Vegezzi’s book appealed to me with its indie graphic novel style cover, it reeked of cool. But that’s exactly why it made me nervous.

I’m sure I’m not alone in buying things like this and then getting home and realising it was something without substance. In this case I suspected a VICE magazine treatment (where this story has had some exposure) –  VICE stories often seem to contain more sensation than depth, they’re more cool than insightful. I unwrapped the cellophane from the book right there on the Piccadilly line and investigated…

Spread – Credit: Vegezzi – from “Self Publish Be Happy”

It didn’t take long to realise I was wrong. Vegezzi’s photostory is a tale of a group of boys, his friends, on the threshold of adulthood who respond to their urban environment of New York by daringly making their own world out of it. The subway system is their second neighbourhood, their night-time neighbourhood. Here they explore and invade forbidden areas, cross subway tracks to explore, discover, paint the walls,  find worlds-within-worlds, meet friends and reinforcing their own bonds. With the curiosity of cats they explore this new world during a brief period of potential that exists between the end of childhood and the dawn of their adult lives.

It’s unusual to see a perspective from a group of boys of this age with such access and intimacy. It reminds me a little of Skins and Punks by Gavin Watson, who, as one on the skinheads / punks on the scene took pictures over a many years from inside both these 1980’s sub-cultures. This makes both these books very insightful, and successful documents. This is because these images come from within the photographers own experience.

It seems to me that most other photographs of this age group are usually based on youthful beauty and often appear as single shots – such as fashion or the type of photos you see on (the nonetheless excellent) if you leave website and publications. But this book offers something different, the fact that the photographer is one of them makes it a special book.Vegezzi’s collection of images reads like a novel in some ways. His clear photographic style suits the material well and he has an excellent eye for a good picture, using perspective and composition beautifully, but he employs a photojournalist approach, rather than a more painstaking ‘art photography’ which wouldn’t work here – he’s not afraid of blur or noise and his edit describes the story – how it feels to be one of these boys, what their world is like. This story is the heart of the book.

Vegezzi image – linked from Huffington Post

The text, which appears at the end of a the book, redefines the images after the viewer has seen them. It subsequently invites a second viewing for a deeper understanding of these young men. Beautifully written by one of the group; Abeliene Cohen. Is deftly crafted to describe these lives and their behaviour. I was struck by this sentence, and how it relates to us all;

“I found it surprisingly easy to separate the subject from my own experience, to let them grow from rowdy kids to universal symbols.”

….and how he discribes, that at least from thier own point of view, they are ‘regular kids’;

“It’s true  that there is a certain amount of criminal activity involved at some points, however the recurring trend leans toward a much more innocent concept…. what’s happening here is an alarming exploration of spatial and social boundaries”

Its all there, in it’s pages,  for the taking. It reminded me of how this period felt – even though this period of my youth, growing up in London was very different, it also left me feeling light, vibrant and alive.

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