Sad news today that photo historian, publisher, author and photographer BILL JAY passed away in his sleep on Sunday in his recently adopted hometown of Samara on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. I received the news from colleagues at Arizona State University and have yet to learn more from Bill’s family.
Born in London in 1940, Bill founded and directed the Photo Study Centre at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London, and was the first editor of Creative Camera Magazine. Ginger Lee Frank wrote a comment to this post elaborating on Bill’s impact on the photography community in the UK that I am quoting here:
Josef arrived – via Elliott Erwitt (who always stayed with me) – with hundreds of rolls of films and stayed using the flat as his base for many years.
Bill enriched my life and no-one can ask more of another.”
Note from MVS: In May 2008 I stopped by Magnum’s NYC office as Josef Koudelka was in town preparing for his forthcoming exhibition and publication INVASION 1968. It was 40 years since that important week in his life when he left Prague for London. We called Bill and the two old friends had a great time talking; it was a nice moment.
Bill came to the US to study with Van Deren Coke and Beaumont Newhall at the University of New Mexico, and then joined the faculty at ASU in 1974, where he founded the Photographic Studies program. As students we were so fortunate that Bill alomg with fellow professor and friend James Hajicek (also UNM graduate, joining the ASU faculty in 1976) had us immersed in the history of photography – Bill through his lectures and seminars, and Jim hands-on through his studio classes trying to re-create 19th century processes with contemporary materials. What joy was heralded as the woodburytypes were coming to life before our very eyes!
After retiring in the late ’90’s, Bill moved from Mesa, Arizona to Ocean Beach near San Diego, to the great delight of the photography community surrounding MoPA and beyond (how lucky were they to have him in their community!). MoPA curator Carol McCusker shared that “People from Ocean Beach are proud of their community. Bill writes about it in his intro for “Men Like Me” (Nazraeli, 2005). The town fit his temperament perfectly – independent, laid back, against corporate & government influence, and feisty.” From the Nazraeli Press entry on Bill’s intro to the book: “In 2003 Bill Jay moved to a small seaside town in Southern California. It is a laid-back, tolerant kind of place where an assortment of ex-hippies, surfers, bikers, Vietnam Vets and old men make the beach and the alleys their home. His daughter, regarding his new surroundings, remarked: “You fit right in here, Dad, there are a lot of old geezers here who look like you.” In other words, over-the-hill, sartorially-challenged men with abundant facial hair. So began the wonderful project that is MEN LIKE ME. But these are not voyeuristic images snapped by a detached observer. There is a great deal of warmth and respect in these pictures, and a humor that conveys the spirit of both the photographer and the photographed. Whenever possible, Jay gave his sitters a copy of their portrait; one day he was led to an ally room near the beach, often used as a refuge. There were all the prints, taped to the wall for an exhibition self deprecatingly entitled ‘The Wall of Shame.’ An immensly readable introductory essay by Bill Jay tells the rest of the story.”
It was during this period that Bill began a project that is an extraordinary gift to of us: www.billjayonphotography.com, accomplished with the generous assistance of John Brinton Hogan. It is on this website that you can read Bill’s words, see his amazing portraits of photographers, and read in PDF format all issues of his landmark publication ALBUM MAGAZINE which he launched in 1970 (twelve issues were produced) and more. Within this section of his website, Bill refers us to read his reflections on publishing within “Essays and “Articles.” Carol McCusker had been in close touch with Bill since his move to Costa Rica last fall, and shared that he had been happy, healthy and looking forward to visits this summer from family and friends; he recently told her that he’d finished writing his memoirs, wishing to share stories of his childhood in England with his three daughters and his granddaughter.
Bill published many books, and had the pleasure of working with former student Chris Pichler, founder and publisher, Nazraeli Press to release his most recent titles Bill Jay’s Album, Men Like Me, Occam’s Razor: An Outside-In View of Contemporary Photography, Sun in the Blood of the Cat and the One Picture Book #09: Bill Brandt. Chris has confirmed with me that Bill had given him a considerable archive of his 50 years of writings from Nazraeli has promised future publishing offerings.
Bill’s research archive is housed at the Center for Creative Photography; click the link to download a 65-page “Finding Aid for the Bill Jay History of Photography Archive, which consists of 177 linear feet of “papers, writings, research files, teaching materials, audiovisual and photographic materials, books, periodicals, and computerized database of photographer and educator Bill Jay.”
An earlier post on this blog features a link to an interview with Bill conducted by Darius Himes; he and I attended the 2008 ICP Infinity Awards where Bill received the Writing award; the transcript of Bill’s acceptance speech follows:
BILL JAY Acceptance Speech, New York City, May 12, 2008
On the occasion of accepting the 2008 Infinity Award for Writing from the International Center for Photography (ICP) in NYC.
Introduction with multimedia production featuring Bill’s images:
Music: Send In The Clowns
“Almost everybody I have met in photography I have a photograph of. I can look at that picture and hear the tone of voice of the photographer in that picture and recall clearly the subject matter of our conversations.
But I have no desire to be considered a photographer.
I got into photography because I loved the medium and I admired the people who became photographers.
Since photography has been hijacked by the art market I am feeling more and more alienated from the medium of photography that I first fell in love with.
Where I came from, the term ARTIST was something that was bestowed on a person after a lifetime of achievement.
So for a student photographer to call himself ARTIST was ludacris. I’m not against the idea that photography can be singled out as ART but only after a body of work, over a long period of time, has entered the pantheon of high achievement, rather than a 20-year old MFA student touting wares around the New York gallery scene.
And my big fear that the histories of photography in the future will be based on the photographers who were saleable through galleries, not through the best photographers in the medium.
We need people who understand the history of the medium and have standards, who are saying ‘photography has something extraordinarily important to say about our culture, our society, our political system’ – these are the things we should be looking at and caring about.
Where are those people? I mean I don’t read them, maybe they exist and I am just too isolated. But – and you say am I angry? I don’t think I’m angry, I’m just sad… the medium just doesn’t seem to exist in the form that I originally loved.
This coming year will be 50 years since I’ve been writing for the photographic press. My first article was published in a European magazine in 1959. A voice emerges when you do something over a long period of time.
It’s not conscious, it is just the way I speak and it’s the way I write.”
END OF MULTIMEDIA INTRODUCTION
Bill comes to the podium:
“This is the good news. The bad news is that I have to follow Miss (Diane) Keaton in speaking to you.
What can I say except THANK YOU. Puny little words, but they are heartfelt.
As you just heard I have doing this for 50 years, writing about photography, for fifty years. It is time to quit.
The medium has gone in directions that I can’t follow and rather than sit on the sidelines and just whine, I decided that I am going to retire. So in less than three weeks I will move to a little beach town in Costa Rica and retire. (APPLAUSE)
And that’s where it could have ended, except for a story that I told someone before this evening, and they said “Oh say that tonight!” so I will.
It is significant, I think, that this first award I’ve ever received, and the last, has come full circle because of a single person: Cornell Capa.
Applause – Bill says “but you don’t know what I am going to say yet!”
In my teens my favorite book was called Through Gates of Splendor and I don’t know if you have ever heard of it. It was a stirring tale of missionaries contacting a tribe of very fierce warriors in South America
And this galvanized my attention to such an extent that I re-read that book a dozen times.
Then I thought the story is being told in words, but what gives that book its emotive power are the photographs in the book. And they were all by Cornell Capa.
This was long before I became engaged in this medium.
So it is very odd that my pre-history in photography should have been inspired the same man who right at the end of my career has inspired this trophy.
I’d like to thank Cornell Capa.
I’d like to thank all the photographers that I have met who have enriched my life with their words and their persons, and their images primarily.
Ooh and here is something that I would like to say because I haven’t had a proper forum until now.
For 25 years I was a teacher, and I’d like to say how enriching that experience was. And I justify education by finding that many of my students surpassed their teacher. That seems to be all that a teacher can desire. Several of those students are here tonight so I thank them for enriching my life.
I’d like to thank the selection committee of course, especially Stuart Alexander who I believe was the person who gave my name to the committee, and I to thank the committee for going along with his request.
I thank you all for coming. I’m sorry not to have had a chance to say hello to you all, but I am here to say goodbye.”
May 12, 2008
New York City
A gallery of Bill’s portraits had been mounted in the reception area. Darius Hime’s photos and remembrances of our conversations are posted here on his blog.
As a teacher, Bill’s passion for photography was infectious. He taught us about how scientific and artistic invention was ripe for photography to arrive on the scene; the culture of the arts was enriched by innovation in his eyes. He drew amazing people to our community; his dear friend David Hurn would visit frequently (they co-authored “On Being a Photographer” 1997 and “On Looking at Photographs” 2000), and Helmut and Alison Gernsheim spent a semester with us. What a time we had!
One of our fellow ASU students has built quite a collection of Bill’s photographs and shares this link to reproductions of 132 of the images – portraits, and more. Enjoy!
Brooks Jensen from LensWork has posted a link on the home page with this message: “If you would like to add a few words, an anecdote, a remembrance, a memory, a thank you, or a goodbye we are gathering them for a community tribute in LensWork. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bill was a mentor to me, introducing me to the rich history of our medium and the joys of engaging in a dialogue with photographers, setting me on my professional path. He inspired so many of us, and will truly be missed.
BILL JAY OBITUARY, British Journal of Photography, May 27 2009:
“Title: Bill Jay champion of the ‘Great British photographic revival’ dies, aged 68″
By Gerry Badger
“Bill Jay dragged British photography kicking and screaming into the late 20th Century. Gerry Badger pays tribute to a remarkable and influential character
The name of Bill Jay, who has died aged 68 at his home in Costa Rica, will be well-known to older readers of the BJP, such as myself. He made his home in America for many years, so it may not be so familiar to younger readers, but he was a major mover and shaker in what has been called the ‘Great British photographic revival’ of the late 1960s and early 70s. His career in this country lasted a mere half-dozen years or so, but in that time he was the dynamic editor of Creative Camera in its earliest (and some say its best) years in the late 60s. Then with financial partner Tristram Powell, he published and edited the renowned, but unfortunately short-lived magazine, Album, in addition to organising a series of now legendary photographic evenings at the ICA in London. If that were not enough, he was also the picture editor of the Daily Telegraph and the European manager for a large picture agency. In all these forums, Jay fought for the medium’s acceptance as a serious art, introducing the exciting new photography that was being made in Europe, Japan, and especially the United States, to a largely moribund British photographic scene.
At that time, British photography seemed stuck between an antediluvian amateurism and a shallow commercialism. Jay, his great friend David Hurn, and people like Colin Osman, the publisher of Creative Camera, photographer Tony Ray-Jones, Sue Davies and Dorothy Bohm, founders of the Photographers’ Gallery, blew away the cobwebs and brought British photography into the late 20th century and the international arena. From those evenings at the ICA, which culminated memorably with a talk by the great American master, Paul Strand, came much of the inspiration for the Photographers’ Gallery, the Photography Committee of the Arts Council, and more.
Following the demise of Album, Jay moved to America to study at the University of new Mexico in Albuquerque with the distinguished photo-historian, Beaumont Newhall, and the dynamic teacher, Van Deren Coke. In 1972, he joined the faculty of Arizona State University in Tempe, where he founded the Photographic Studies programme, and in the 80s he wrote a series of articles for BJP, with subjects ranging from keraunography to early techniques in post-mortem photography. He settled in Ocean Beach, near San Diego, after retiring from teaching in the late 90s, but continued writing and agitating for photography, despite severe heart problems in later life.
In a videoed interview (tinyurl.com/qslf4q) that catches the flavour of the man, Jay credits David Hurn as the inspiration for his writing career. He’d shown Hurn his own photographs, to be told they weren’t quite good enough, but that his enthusiasm for the medium could be channelled into writing about photography. Average photographers were 10 a penny, said Hurn, but good photographic writers were in short supply. So a career was born, but Jay continued to take one particular kind of photograph – portraits of the many photographers he met and interviewed. A fine selection of these was published in 1983 in the book, Photographers Photographed.
Latterly, Jay wrote a regular, and eagerly awaited column, End Notes, for the bi-monthly American magazine LensWork, and continued to collaborate with David Hurn. Two books they did together for LensWork are essential reading for any budding photographer – On Being a Photographer (1997), and On Looking at Photographs (2000).
As Hurn indicated above, the great strength of Bill’s writing was his enthusiasm, and this translated into a certain eclecticism.
He was just as happy delving into the quirky bye ways of photography as writing about the great names. Album and Creative Camera during his tenure were never just about introducing the canon, although that was an important function, because in late 60s Britain, even photographers like Robert Frank and Paul Strand were virtually unknown. But Jay, unusually, was as interested in 19th as well as 20th century photography, and in things like the snapshot, the tintype, or spirit photography, at a time when vernacular photography was rather despised by would-be photo-aesthetes. In this he was way ahead of the game.
Consider something he wrote in the May 1968 issue of Creative Camera. It could have been written yesterday and be considered just as relevant:
‘Contemporary photography is full of crap – the most pungent pile is the belief that ‘good’ is synonymous with unintelligible. In fact the opposite is true. The best photography communicates and continues to communicate with the viewer. And this is the most difficult style to achieve since it demands so much more from the photographer (in a word, integrity) and so little from the technique. The history of good photography has been the history of pure photography.’
Bill Jay’s passing at his recently adopted home of Samara in Costa Rica leaves a gap not just in British and American photography, but in the photographic community generally.
- Jay’s articles and essays can be read at billjayonphotography.com.
© Incisive Media Ltd. 2009
Incisive Media Limited, Haymarket House, 28-29 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4RX, is a company registered in the United Kingdom with company registration number 04038503″
My special thanks to David Hurn and Ginger Lee Franks for their comments I’ve quoted here, and the countless others who comments on this post since receiving the sad news of Bill’s passing. I look forward to reading more in the upcoming Lenswork tribute edition.