In March 1968, Tony Ray-Jones, a wunderkind even among the flashy young things of Blowup-era British photography, took a series of pictures at Crufts dog show. One image stands out, in which a great deal is going on. Eleven dogs and around twenty people are milling about indoors. At first it seems that Ray-Jones has pointed his camera at sheer backstage chaos, a visual mess complete with piss stain over on the left. Slowly, however, a structure establishes itself: the contestants’ handlers, who are mostly women in middle age, seem to be anxiously dispersing, while their dogs strain towards the centre of the scene. And there, or thereabouts, is a pot-bellied man in rumpled mac and porkpie hat: a bemused, Hulot-ish figure who might have wandered in by mistake and no doubt soon will be up to no good. The dogs, by the way, are Bedlington terriers, which look absurdly like lambs.
Ray-Jones, who died aged thirty in 1972, had perfected a vision of documentary as affectionate asperity towards picturesque British ritual – a common approach still, though few photographers working in this field, before or since, have matched his audacity of composition. Martin Parr, an obvious successor in terms of subject matter, depicts some of the same vernacular strangeness, but without Ray-Jones’s wild formal energy. The combination of social critique and gentle humour, slightly surrealised, is everywhere in the photographic history surveyed in Another Country, along with an inevitable, perhaps mistaken, sense of British exceptionalism regarding peculiarities of landscape, class and pageant: seaside resorts and postindustrial wastelands (these sometimes seem identical), comical meetings of high and low culture, terraced streets inhabited like parlours, domestic interiors of remarkable intricacy or desolation, indelible characters, in the old, gossipy sense of the word. If you take seriously the documentarist’s impulse towards evidence and witness, how come the results so frequently match prefab cultural fantasy?
Gerry Badger ought to know. A longtime collaborator with Parr – together they have written a three-volume history of the photobook – and critical champion of a certain realist and humanist tradition in British photography (as against the conceptual intrusion of ‘artists who work with photography’), Badger knows