American Colour 1962-1965


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American Colour 1962-1965 by Tony Ray-Jones draws from the vast archive of one of the keenest observers of British society and culture, presenting a selection of his early experiments with colour photography. Coming to the States on a scholarship in the early '60s with the background of a graphic designer, Ray-Jones threw himself into the street life of New York and witnessed the excitement and sense of departure that was stirring the nation at the time. Developing his own viewpoints, both artistic and personal, he also dove into the newly emerging medium of colour film. This book shows a selection of these 'isolated sketches' in colour, as Ray-Jones referred to them, and sheds a new light on a photographer whose later black-and-white work exerted an enormous influence on British documentary photography.

The images have a reflective and silent quality, even during crowded events they capture intimate moments between people and zoom in on marginal scenes. Exploring and absorbing the city at the same time, Tony Ray-Jones let his alert eyes wander. Up building facades, into windows, from great heights down onto the streets, through car windows onto the other side of the street - searching for daily impressions and pinpointing the decisive moment with a rare intensity. We see a mother and her young son by the open window, the child standing on the window frame held by her grip that is loose and firm at the same time. The child rubs his eyes, she is talking to him and, through Ray-Jones, we witness a moment of deep love and trust, isolated from the bigger picture of the city and existing in its own right.

With the eye of a graphic designer, Ray-Jones introduced architectural shapes, lines and symbols in a conscious way, but it's also worth remembering, in light of the quality of these early works, that colour photography was not taken as a medium of serious photography at the time. Ray-Jones shot in colour for pragmatic reasons, mainly as a matter of speed, but the ways in which he used colour contribute to the strength of the composition. There is a woman napping in her white open convertible, her pitch black hair resting on a red scarf. The same colours come back in the form of a bright red racing car, with a black number in a white circle painted on its side. One might not notice the many details at first sight, but together they trigger a sensible coherence and vibrancy throughout the book. Flower hats, sailors' uniforms, American flags, chrome bumpers, studs and sunglasses - the images breathe the vibe of a confident nation at a tumultuous time in history. At the height of the civil rights movement, the space race and the Kennedy era, anything seemed possible and the colour sketches in the book seem carried by this excitement.

Unfortunately, with his return to England, Ray-Jones also parted from using colour: "I found America a very colour-conscious country. Colour is very much part of their culture, and they use it in crazy ways. … When I got back to England I found everything so grey that I didn't see the point of shooting in colour. To me, Britain is very much a black-and-white country." His colour works might constitute 'isolated sketches' in his short but prolific career, but they helped define the greatness of his later black-and-white photographs and constitute a beautiful body of work definitely worth of showing.

American Colours 1962-1965 is available from MACK. Some of Tony Ray-Jones acclaimed black-and-white works are on exhibit at the Science Museum's Media Space gallery in London until 16 March 2014.