I’m sitting here thinking that it is time to write a post. I can’t believe that as long as I have had this blog, I have never posted anything about Tony Ray-Jones. He is one the first big influences on my work. I can remember coming across a small portfolio of his images in Modern Photography, back in the early 1970s. I was mesmerized. His imagery was so surreal, and real. I found out that a book was published of his work, A Day Off, in 1974, two years after his death.
Ray-Jones was born in Wells, Somerset, England. Tony Ray-Jones studied at the London School of Printing, where he concentrated on graphic design. In the early 1960s he obtained a scholarship that enabled him to attend the Yale University School of Art on the strength of photographs he had taken in north Africa from a taxi window. Although only 19 on his arrival at Yale, Ray-Jones’ talent was obvious, and in 1963 he was given assignments for the magazines Car and Driver and the Saturday Evening Post.
Eager to use photography for more creative purposes, Ray-Jones went to the Design Lab held by the art director Alexey Brodovitch in the Manhattan studio of Richard Avedon; Brodovitch’s gruff manner and high standards won respect and hard work from Ray-Jones and others. Ray-Jones also got to know a number of New York “street photographers”, such as Joel Meyerowitz, a fellow Brodovich student at the time. Ray-Jones graduated from Yale in 1964 and photographed the United States energetically until his departure for Britain in late 1965.
On his return to Britain, he was shocked at the lack of interest in non-commercial photography, let alone in the publication of books presenting it. He was also unsure of what subject he might pursue, but the idea of a survey of the English at leisure gradually took shape.
“My aim is to communicate something of the spirit and the mentality of the English, their habits and their way of life, the ironies that exist in the way they do things, partly through their traditions and partly through the nature of their environment and their mentality. For me there is something very special about the English ‘way of life’ and I wish to record it from my particular point of view before it becomes Americanised and disappears.”
In late 1971, Ray-Jones started to suffer from exhaustion. Early the next year leukemia was diagnosed, and he started chemotherapy. Medical treatment in the US was too expensive, so Ray-Jones flew to London on 10 March and immediately entered the Royal Marsden Hospital; he died there on 13 March.
One afternoon back in 1979, I walked into a used book shop that popped up on Broadway near W. 32nd Street. I had some time to kill before taking a train to visit my mom. This shop was unusual in that none of the books were on shelves. They were stacked 2-3 feet high all on the floor. I found a few photo stacks and proceeded to go through them. At the bottom of the the third was a pristine hardcover copy of Tony Ray-Jones’ A Day Off. I paid just a few dollars. I was in heaven, as this book was long out of print. It has become one of my cherished posessions.