Reading a Photograph
The finest work of Tony Ray-Jones (1941- 1972) was a record of the English at leisure. He was fascinated by the eccentricities of English social customs and Tony Ray-Jones spent the second half of the Sixties travelling across England, photographing what he considered to be a disappearing way of life. The resulting images are humorous yet melancholy .
As its title indicates, this is a photograph of a beauty contest. All the elements are there: a contestant in bathing suit and high heeled shoes, a microphone with which the contestants introduce themselves, a compère to guide the proceedings, the judges, complete with notepads, a catwalk and a public.
Furthermore this is a beauty contest at the beach and the catwalk is actually built in the water. From the looks of it, this contestant has just introduced herself and is starting her strut down the runway.
The bathing suit and figure of the contestant clearly exemplify the styles of the Sixties. However, for a daytime beauty contest on a beach, all the participants are highly overdressed. The contestant is wearing high-heeled pumps and is coifed in the style of the era, though more adequate for big city life than for the seaside. The compère and the judges are wearing dark suits, again much too formal for the beach and probably quite uncomfortable in the sun.
This is one of two photographs with the same title seen in the exhibition “Only in England“ at the Science Museum in London, presenting photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr. The other image shows a group of bored contestants and oblivious contest officials backstage.
Bathing suit beauty contests were extremely popular in the Sixties, particularly in England. The oldest international beauty competition, Miss World, actually started in England in the late Fifties. Yet despite this popularity, the public at this contest show absolutely no interest in it. This struck a cord with me.
Having been a beauty contest fan since the Sixties, I started organizing beauty contests in the late Eighties. As a contest producer, your worst nightmare is organizing an event that fails to grab the attention of the public. Having such a disinterested public is downright horrific.
Another item in this photograph that hijacked my attention was the high heeled pumps of the contestant. In the Nineties, the use of high heeled shoes in swimsuit competitions became a matter of much discussion, as it was argued that high heels are incongruous together with bathing suits. This idea is very much supported by this photograph.
Finally, the word “Shallow” is visible on the stage floor. With its visibility is Tony Ray-Jones expressing an opinion on the proceedings?
This image is a unique record of a beauty contest that takes itself too seriously and a public that does not take it at all.
 Science Museum Exhibition Notes