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Corps de ballet © Colin Jones/Topfotos

Corps de ballet © Colin Jones/Topfotos

From ballet to industrial photography

It seems bizarre that as the years roll by the 1960s that so many remember vividly are falling into the depths of Another Time. Black and white, gritty reportage was printed as regualr features in newspapers and magazines. When you see those photographs now, it is history reaching out: in the faces; the clothes; hair styles; buildings – and especially  the gritty images of industry in the north which have now disappeared into the mists of time. Colin Jones was one of the photographers documenting those eras. HOT’s Lauris Morgan-Griffiths went to see his early images at Lucy Bell’s Gallery.

Colin Jones’ route to where he eventually landed up, and for what he is best known, the industrial north, has taken a somewhat scenic route.

Liverpool-docks.1963 ©Colin Jones/Topfotos

Liverpool-docks.1963 © Colin Jones/Topfotos

It is often thought photographers arrive fully formed with a passion nurtured from childhood. However, that is often not the case; although it is not a prerequisite, photographers are often dyslexic and pick up a camera for want of anything better to do and then they find their place in the world. Although everyone is a  snapper these days with mobile phone cameras, it is a good eye, patience, persistence and an idea of what you want that marks out a good photographer.

Born in the East End of London during the Blitz, the young and dyslexic Colin Jones had attended thirteen different schools when he was recruited by the Royal Ballet – an event that changed his life. Self deprecatingly, he has admitted that he was not really a very good dancer. “They were so desperate for boy dancers I think they would have taken me in if I only had one leg,” he has said – and he was very good-looking.

Elizabeth Anderton, The Gorbals, Glasgow 1961 © Colin Jones/Topfotos

Elizabeth Anderton, The Gorbals, Glasgow 1961 © Colin Jones/Topfotos

He joined the Royal Ballet at an important time in its history. He performed alongside Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn as well as prima ballerina Lynn Seymour, whom he later married. The choreographers at the time were the venerable Sirs Frederick Ashton and Kenneth Macmillan who were devising contemporary ballets that are still in the company repertoire today.

All the dancers had cameras so Jones thought he ought to have one too. He bought his first camera whilst on tour in Japan, running an errand for Dame Margot Fonteyn. He started taking photographs, making valuable use of his access to backstage, and capturing the reality of life as a ballet dancer – the hard work, the weariness and dedication required to succeed.

Finding the ballet somewhat right-wing while touring with the company, he would disappear off to explore the industrial towns of the north. Jones left the ballet in 1962. His first commission was with the Observer Magazine to cover the Alabama race riots of 1963, and subsequently many other events including Brazilian gold mines, gangs in Jamaica, prostitution in the Philippines, the boy soldiers of the Khmer Rouge, and the cargo cults of the New Hebrideans who worshipped Prince Phillip.

He was fortunate to be working in the heyday of investigative and photo-journalism, alongside photographers such as Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths, under the editorship of Harold Evans at the Sunday Times.

Nureyev © Colin Jones

Nureyev © Colin Jones

Each photographer chooses their own subject and even though several were mining the same seam, they each bought their individual characters to the work and made it their own. Did he know he was documenting what would soon be consigned to history? He probably did. Certainly there were signs of the demise of the northern industries. Poignantly, in 1979, he photographed the last ship to be built at one of the Dundee shipyards.

Over the years Jones has documented facets of British social history as diverse as the vanishing industrial working lives of the Northeast (Grafters), marginalised Afro-Caribbean youth in London (The Black House) and the high-octane hedonism of Swinging London in the 1960’s with his iconic images of The Who early in their career.

Coal miner South Wales 1997 © Colin Jones

Coal miner South Wales 1997 © Colin Jones

His portraits are honest, direct and touching – of a miner black with coal, honest eyes, showing exhaustion, miners showering after their shift, steam trains, smoke pouring out of industrial chimneys, dockers waiting for work, kids playing in the street, deserted cobbled streets; people at leisure – sunbathing, hair in curlers. All life is there.

Katherine Viner said of Jones’ photographs in the Sunday Times Magazine of 13 October 1996: “They look like something described by Orwell in one of his political essays, like photographs from the 1930s to illustrate The Road to Wigan Pier –  cloth caps and granite-faced dockers.”

Colin Jones has had exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, in London at the Photographers’ Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Modern and the Hayward. This exhibition, which includes some images never shown or seen before, celebrates his early career.

Colin Jones – The George Orwell of Photography Lucy Bell Gallery, 46 Norman Road, St Leonards, TN38 0EJ until 31 May. Open Tues-Sat 11am-4pm.


Posted 18:32 Monday, Apr 22, 2019 In: Photography

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