Summer of Love
A Photograph by Tony Ray-Jones
by Ian Walker

Source - Issue 40 - Autumn - 2004 - Click for Contents

Issue 40 Autumn 2004
View Contents ▸

I think I have always been half in love with her. As she leans back against her lover, eyes closed, absorbed in sensuality and oblivious to the people around her, this girl should really be in some European art film of the period – by Antonioni or Truffaut perhaps – rather than here on a pleasure boat off the English coast.

I’ve known this picture now for thirty years. It was a sunny day in London in 1974 or 1975 when I walked into a secondhand bookshop on Great Russell Street along from the British Museum to find a copy of Tony Ray-Jones’ book A Day Off. It was marked down to £1.50 (the original price was £4.75). I bought it and, right now, it’s propped up on the table in front of me. I’m not sure if this was my first sight of the picture – there was an Arts Council exhibition of Ray-Jones’ work called The English Seen going round the country at the same time. But the version in the book, the second image in, is the one I return to and have shown in lectures ever since to say something about the decisive moment, traditions in documentary, the English seaside and so on.

Of course, it’s not only the young lovers who make this such a great picture. They are central to the image, but around them are an array of older people, their gazes outward, keen it seems to look anywhere other at this couple in their midst. It is this refusal of social interaction which makes the picture an acute piece of satire just as the network of divergent gazes makes it visually so satisfying. Part of my response to the picture has of course to do with my own age and social background. I feel I recognise these people – their faces are like the ones that gaze out of my own family album from the period and, as I look, I assign them characters.

The woman at bottom left with glasses and a worried look resembles my Auntie Lil and that is who she becomes. The old man in the flat cap is an archetypal working class type, though his check waistcoat, watch chain and tie clip are actually rather dressy. At the top, the boat’s captain fulfills his supporting role as weathered seadog quite perfectly. The woman below him is another auntie and the placement of her face next to that of the girl – tilted in the same direction yet tense, almost a mask – says much about age and experience.Tripper Boat, Beachy Head - National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Bradford
Tripper Boat, Beachy Head - National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Bradford

To the other side of the couple stands a rather gaunt man, taking a drag on his cigarette. Here we are surrounded by all this fresh air and it’s time for a fag; defined by his action, I call him the ‘smoking man’. Finally, at bottom right, there is another man, whose neat white shirt and swept back grey hair I instinctively read as middle rather than working class. He seems to have a contemplative look on his face and I’m struck by his resemblance to the English painter John Piper.

The title as it was given in A Day Off was Scarborough, 1967. Immediately one imagines the rugged Yorkshire coast off to the left as one simultaneously thinks of hippies in San Francisco with flowers in their hair. (Somewhere out there, Simon and Garfunkel are singing the old English ballad Scarborough Fair.) All that seems a long way away from the microcosm of this picture, but one of the things going on here (very gently) is a contrast between old English repressions and a newer, younger freedom of thought and action.

"It is often said", wrote Richard Ehrlich, "that Tony’s great achievement was to integrate the insights and working methods of 1960s American street photography into an essentially English approach to English life". It’s instructive, for example, to put this picture next to the photograph that Garry Winogrand took at the American Legion Convention in Dallas in 1964. The structure is very similar in both pictures – a central figure surrounded by others who, embarrassed and awkward, look in every direction but at them. But the fierce gaze of the man on the ground, back at the photographer – at us, challenging our own right to gaze – strikes quite a different tone to Ray-Jones’ picture. Whatever embarrassment the people on the boat feel isn’t because a man has lost his legs in a war; it’s only because a young couple are being a little too affectionate.American Legion Convention, Dallas, 1964 

 - Copyright The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel GalleryAmerican Legion Convention, Dallas, 1964 - Copyright The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery

In fact, very few people look back in Ray-Jones’ photographs as they do in Winogrand’s. This is in its way just as disturbing, for it puts us in the position of perpetual voyeur. Writing this, I am struck by another comparison with Winogrand’s series Women are Beautiful. Time has quite rightly not been kind to those pictures, which seem all too often merely to reinforce the power of men to look at women. But isn’t that what is happening here? Perhaps what I have desired these thirty years is my own fantasy of this girl, safely unattainable. A perpetual question mark hangs over the picture now and I can’t shift this nagging feeling that, as Michael Powell once put it, "all this filming isn’t healthy".

Though I’ve known this picture for a long time, much of what I’ve just written hadn’t crystallised until recently. It took a particular experience to renew and then shift my interest in this picture. It happened in the Insight Research Centre in the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, where I have come to look through the Tony Ray-Jones archive for another research project. The lights are low. My copy of A Day Off is lying open on the table. On a trolley is a pile of brown archive boxes. I take the top one off the pile – Box 21, which contains the negatives and contact sheets for the first half of A Day Off. As I start to scan the sheet containing this picture, I am transfixed and my larger purpose set aside for a while.

The first few frames – at the bottom of the contact sheet – are taken on dry land in a Hall of Mirrors. But with frame 7, we are on the boat with the familiar cast of characters, though the photographer hasn’t decided whom to concentrate on. There is one person here who will not make it into the final shot, though her presence is important in the other frames. Sitting up on the right is a young girl in a swimsuit and ‘Piper’ is evidently her father. (Looking back at the chosen shot, one realises that it is her shoulder and hair that just edge into the frame.) Her removal will change the final picture quite a lot. If she had been included, the contrast between the young lovers and the older characters would not have been so concentrated.

Through to frame 14, Ray-Jones shares his attention between the lovers on the left and the father and daughter on the right. Then suddenly, in frame 15, it happens. The girl leans back into her boyfriend, the camera moves sharply left to centre on them, the little girl is lost and Lil and the captain come into the shot. The moment is celebrated on the contact sheet by an orange chinagraph rectangle, a cross and a tick. It is the shot and it will be printed nearly full frame.

It’s hard in retrospect not to see this as a climatic resolution and to think of all the other shots as leading up to and away from this moment. But the simultaneous presence of multiple images on the contact sheet democratises the process and makes visible a continuing experiment in looking. Here are 37 equally sized images laid out for inspection, each as weighted as the next. With the sort of picture-making process that Tony Ray-Jones followed, any image is potentially the one to make it out of the pack and he wouldn’t have known what he had got until he saw it later. Meanwhile, the film rolls on and we aren’t halfway through it yet.

The camera is turned vertically for the next six shots and Ray-Jones shifts between the young couple and the father/daughter, still perhaps hedging his bets. With frame 22, though, the shot is horizontal again and everyone turns their back to the camera to look over to the right. A lighthouse has appeared on the edge of frame; it is striped and sits in front of a row of white cliffs. This is our first clue that we aren’t where we think we are – this isn’t Scarborough but Beachy Head. These aren’t northerners from the mill-towns of Yorkshire but southerners – trippers from London perhaps. (In fact, painstaking research by Ruth Kitchin at the NMPFT has shown that much of the captioning in A Day Off is wildly wrong; of the first fifty pictures in the book, only thirteen are correctly captioned, a success rate that seems almost wilfully low.)

The appearance of the coastline also tells us something about the gazes of the people in frame 15. I have previously read them as looking away from the couple; in fact they are looking at something – across to the left, at the cliffs. (The only exception, aside from the lovers, is the captain, who has been here many times before and keeps his eyes in the direction of his boat.) Moreover, if now, in the second half of the film, the boat is travelling west to east along the coast, then in the first half we had been going east to west with the open sea out to the right. And therefore, we must have started out from a port to the east of Beachy Head.

This is confirmed when we get back to dry land in frames 32 to 35. Ray-Jones is now on shore photographing the rear of the boat which is still crowded with people. In the background is a pier with a very distinctive tower – it is Eastbourne, just three or four miles east of Beachy Head. (Pleasure boat trips still start from this spot near the pier.) After that, the last two shots on the film show a woman in an evening dress who looks a bit like Camilla Parker-Bowles, either presenting or receiving a cup. Obviously, we are somewhere else.

After the boxes containing the pictures for A Day Off, I start on those with all the other films that Ray-Jones shot at the seaside. He photographed a lot, hardly ever choosing more than one image from any sheet. Looking through Box 27, I find another sheet of images made on that boat. My first thought is that it must precede or follow the one I’ve just been looking at. But of course, it can’t, since that one starts and ends on shore. This film must have been shot at the same time and Ray-Jones must have used a second camera.

I don’t know why, but I find this slightly shocking. The image of the camera-laden photo-jock is one I associate more with press photographers rather than independent, quick-moving documentarians like Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand or Ray-Jones. Was it a common practice for him? Or was it a specific response to the circumstances of the boat trip – crowded, with little room to manoeuvre? We can see that the two cameras carried different lenses at the end of each film, where shots of the boat from shore are taken from the same position. The frame on the second film is tighter and was probably made with a standard 50mm lens; the lens for the first film – and which made the picture he finally chose – was wider, perhaps a 35mm or 28mm.

It’s initially hard to sort out what’s going on in this second film compared with the first. It wasn’t contacted in negative order and one jumps about in time going down the sheet. (The first film was contacted in the correct order – albeit laid out from bottom to top – but actually this was quite rare, indicating how much Ray-Jones was looking for the telling single image and was quite uninterested in the development of narrative through a sequence of pictures.)

We start already on the boat, further round to the left, where frames 8 and 9 were taken on the first film, and concentrating on our main characters – the lovers, the father and daughter. From frame 11 on, though, the ‘smoking man’ is in frame on the left and it’s by concentrating on him that I get a sense of the sequence. He’s in a shirt with his sleeves rolled up but at 16, he rolls the sleeves down and between 21 and 23, he puts his jumper on. And since in the famous shot, he is wearing his jumper, it must have been taken after that. (This is ridiculous. Hunched over the contact sheet, peering myopically through the lupe, I’m getting excited by someone putting on their pullover!)

However, in the next frame – 24 – we can see the lighthouse in the distance, a position that we don’t get to until about frame 30 in the first film. So everything between 11 and 30 on the first film was shot between 23 and 24 in the second – in that little sliver of black, as it were. Although Ray-Jones made use of two cameras in this situation, he evidently didn’t jump between them but rather shot long sequences on one before turning to the other.

The second film also tells us more about these characters on the boat. The little girl is particularly cute, as she leans against her father, laughing and pointing. (Between frames 21 and 23, he lights up a cigarette and protects it in the palm of his hand. It’s there, below the frame, in the famous shot – would he look so noble and contemplative if we could see it?) In frame 29, the (visibly) ‘smoking man’ is sitting with his arm around a woman with curly hair. (In the final shot, only her backside will appear, sticking out from behind Piper.) The man in the flat cap is also sitting next to an older woman in dark glasses (we see her collar behind Lil in the selected picture). Lil also seems to be with someone, a younger version of herself in matching glasses – presumably her daughter. Thus, all these people are in pairs, quite a different effect from the printed image where the contrast is between their singleness and the couple’s togetherness. Even the captain has a mate in some shots. (Indeed, it’s quite possible that the only person on his own was the photographer.)

Above all, my gaze is focused on the lovers themselves and, of course, they look much more ordinary the more we see of them. He has tousled hair and thick glasses (which I am surprised to realise I have never noticed before). As he squints into the light, he frankly looks a bit of a geek. With the girl, there are moments when a little touch of youthful unconventionality is revealed. When she kneels on the seat, we see that her feet are bare and, on the floor, she has a shoulder bag with a ethnic-style knitted pattern. But these are hardly symbols of rebellion. This couple represent the acceptable face of young romance.

Mostly, the girl seems lost in thought, a little wistful perhaps. In these other shots, she looks more like Judith Durham than Monica Vitti. (Note for younger readers: Monica Vitti was the star of Antonioni’s atmosphere-laden movies of the early sixties. Judith Durham was the singer with the wholesome Australian pop group The Seekers, whose song ‘Georgy Girl’ had hit the top of the charts earlier that year.) Yet the closeness of the couple is touching. They hold on to each other throughout the trip, though his grasp of her from behind could be read as either protective or possessive.

The second film, like the first, ends back on shore, and the last single frame is of a mature couple lying across each other on the grass. Caught in the middle of her knitting, the woman looks up, a little quizzically and pissed off, directly at the photographer. It’s a moment which suddenly makes me aware that during the whole of these two films, hardly anyone else has been caught looking at the camera. One can think of reasons for this. It was a situation where photography would be a socially acceptable convention (indeed, it’s surprising that no-one else on this boat seems to have a camera). Even so, these people must have become aware that this intense young man with the extra camera slung round his neck wasn’t interested in photographing seagulls and white cliffs. Perhaps they are being politely English, and their scattered eyelines are avoiding the camera as much as they are the couple. We also don’t know of course what went on between frames – in his notebook, Ray-Jones told himself to "Get more involved (talk to people)". (Mind you, he also wrote "Be more aggressive", which wouldn’t have helped in this confined space.)

It’s appropriate, then, that it’s only now, near the end of my scrutiny, that I notice one last detail. During the second half of the trip and on his way home, the captain has folded down the glass screen in front of him and we see reflections in it of people on the boat but otherwise out of shot. In one frame – 25 on the first film – the angle is such that we can see on the extreme left a reflection of a man with longish hair, wearing a white shirt and holding a camera to his eye, pointed back into the frame. It must, of course, be Tony Ray-Jones himself, emerging for a split second from the anonymity of his role behind the camera and, however briefly, part of the confined world of the boat.

I think I have spent a longer time studying these contact sheets than Ray-Jones spent on the boat. But now those two different passages of time are both gone, and I’m left trying to transcribe the meanings of the one event through the other. It’s perhaps conventional but nevertheless inevitable that we want to imagine the unknowable lives these people went back to. As Barthes found with little Ernest, we want to know who they were and what happened to them. Tony Ray-Jones is long dead of course, as are most of the other people in the picture. Except perhaps the lovers themselves, who would be in their late fifties now. Was this a brief summertime fling or the start of a lifetime’s companionship? Impossible to know of course but equally impossible not to ask the question.

And also pointless. What we have are the pictures. What we ultimately have is the picture. And I return to it with amazement at its perfection. A strange word to use about a caught moment, perhaps, but rarely has a candid ‘street-style’ photograph been so finely achieved. Tony Ray-Jones would probably not have been happy at my scrutinising the contact sheets in this way – he chose this picture to stand alone – but looking through the other images with all their awkwardness and lack of resolution has reinforced that sense of a moment of epiphany.

Of course, the picture cannot ultimately tell us anything more than it contains within its borders (and the contact sheets cannot show us anything other than the 73 other moments on either side of it). The problem with the concept of the ‘decisive moment’ was that it extrapolated from that moment as it existed in the photograph to see it as expressing the meaning of the event as a whole. It can’t carry that weight. From where we stand, the young couple may be central; for everyone else in the picture, they are peripheral. Day-trippers thrown together by chance, they all have their own lives.

I’m glad, though, that I now know more about how the picture was taken. If it had been made now, I might have worried about it being staged. But, as Joe Rosenthal said about his famous Iwo Jima photo, if it had been set up, it couldn’t have been so good. For the ‘perfection’ of such a caught moment also involves the presence of all the peripheral, inconsequential elements as well. (Imagine a photographer now putting the picture through photoshop, removing the wisp of the girl’s hair on the right edge.) As it is, there they are – the smoking man and the crusty seadog, Piper and Lil and the girl who, yes, for a moment was exquisitely, eternally beautiful – on that boat off Beachy Head in 1967. It happened.

Other articles mentioning Ian Walker:

Other articles mentioning Tony Ray-Jones:

Other articles mentioning Henri Cartier-Bresson:

Other articles on photography from the 'Documentary' category ▸