After winning a photography competition run by The Sunday Times in 1981, Dafydd Jones was hired by Tina Brown, the editor of Tatler, to photograph the exclusive upper-class world of Hunt Balls, society weddings and debutante dances. Fast forward 30 years and we have a collection of snaps that capture the eccentric moments of madness from parties long forgotten. The series is now on view at The Photographers’ Gallery in London.
“I had access to what felt like a secret world,” says Jones. “It was a subject that had been written about and dramatised but I don’t think any photographers had ever tackled before. There was a change going on. Someone described it as a ‘last hurrah’ of the upper classes.”
Jones’ photos rarely flatter his subjects, often shot when unconscious, intoxicated or indecent. Invariably dressed in ball gowns and tuxedoes they jump on tables, spray champagne, indulge in public displays of affection and other debauchery. They drink and dance with a carelessness symbolic of the times, unfazed by the ever-present cameraman.
The collection is funny and teeming with life. Occasional moments of tranquillity arrive in the early morning hours, when the only remaining subjects to photograph are those sleeping on the grass. Otherwise the photos are relentlessly energetic, gaining their charm from the silliness and impeccability of Jones’ timing.
Any humour behind his photos though is offset by the poignant accuracy with which they seem to reflect an era. The most explosive photo in the collection features five boys at Oriel College in Oxford leaping away from a burning boat, an annual tradition for whichever college rowed ‘Head of the River’ during Eight’s week.
“Everyone took their turn to jump or trample over the fire with much cheering,” remembers Jones. “Whilst this was going on there was a chant of ‘no women’ echoing round the quad as the college had just voted to allow women students. For no logical reason, for me it symbolises the 80s, the big bang, and the time of Thatcher.”
Dafydd Jones: The Last Hurrah is on show at The Photographers’ Gallery, London until September 8. A book of the series is also available and published by Stanley/Barker