” Making a photograph is a difficult as finding a particularly frisky cat in a dark room. Asking a great photograph is as chancy as trying to catch a frisky cat in a black room in which there is no cat ”
– Bill Jay
Amongst many other talents such as photography, Bill Jay was also a writer on and advocate of photography, curator, magazine and picture editor, lecturer, public speaker and mentor.
Jay was born in Maidenhead, England, attended grammar school and completed two years at Berkshire College of Art. As he began to work for commercial photo-magazines, it gradually became apparent that he was more interested in marketing photography as a medium than in selling cameras.
Jay was editor of the hobbyist Camera Owner which he transformed into “the immensely influential magazine” Creative Camera (1968–1969); and founder and editor of Album (1970–1971), for all twelve issues. Since a magazine as radical and art-focused as Creative Camera had difficulty in paying the rent, Jay also worked for a picture agency to make ends meet, as well as for the Daily Telegraph.
Around this time, he founded and directed the photo-study centre at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Increasingly invited to speak publicly on photography, he gave hundreds of lectures to camera clubs, art schools and colleges, and wrote them up as articles for photo-magazines and journals. His self-avowed mission, according to the photo-historian Michael Pritchard, was “to instil some life into the British photographic community”.
To supplement working on Creative Camera, for short periods he was European manager of Globe Photos, an international picture agency. He was the first Director of Photography at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, in 1970 and founded and directed the Photo Study Centre there
He joined the Royal Photographic Society in February 1972 and was visiting speaker and arranger of talks at the Society, as well as for local camera clubs and polytechnics throughout the UK.
In the same year, he moved to the United States to enrol at the University of New Mexico under Beaumont Newhall and Van Deren Coke. He graduated with an MA on the Victorian landscape photographer Francis Bedford. He also wrote extensively on Paul Martin, Francis Frith and Benjamin Stone, the documentarist of the burgeoning city of Birmingham.
In fact, Jay was as interested in photographers as he was in photography. Through two dozen books, plus some 400 essays, lectures and articles, he alternated writing thematically with writing monographs. They came with titles such as A History of the Nude As a Subject for Photographers (1972) and Negative/Positive: A Philosophy of Photography (1982) through to Some Rollicking Bull: Light Verse and Worse on Victorian Photography (1993) and Cyanide and Spirits: an Inside-Out View of Early Photography (1991). In 1997 he undertook a major work with Hurn, On Being a Photographer (1997), and at the turn of the century co-published a second book with him, On Looking at Photographs.
The constant, however, was an accessible style, much praised by critics and students alike. In 1974, Jay founded a photographic studies course at Arizona State University, where he remained for 25 years, becoming professor of art history.
He gave hundreds of lectures on photography as a guest at colleges, universities, art schools and camera clubs in Britain, Europe and the United States.
Jay ascribed the discovery of his vocation to his friend the Magnum photographer David Hurn. He recalled handing over a large box of his own black-and-white prints to Hurn for inspection. Hurn riffled through the lot in 30 seconds and handed them back with the verdict: “Boring.” He elaborated: “Lots of others can do this sort of stuff better than you, photographers are 10 a penny. But there’s no one around who can write on photography … organise exhibitions … do all the things you can. So if you want a place in photography, you should start doing this.” Curiously enough, “boring” became the adjective that Jay himself was most inclined to ascribe to much of the new work that became fashionable in the wake of courses he himself initiated.
Jay’s legacy is compacted into a 177ft archive at the Centre for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, labelled “papers, writings, research files, teaching materials, audiovisual and photographic materials, books, periodicals, and computerised database of photographer and educator Bill Jay”. His estimate of his own place was perhaps more modest.
In 2005, he compiled a collection of portraits of neighbours outside San Diego called Men Like Me: Portraits of Homeless Men in a Small California Seaside Town. As if in affirmation of a drifter’s status, Jay had only recently moved on again, to the Nicoya peninsula in central America, where he planned a long retirement, part-literary, part-photographic and “part-beach bum”.
Perhaps the best summary of his varied character and career is afforded by Hurn: “His staggering enthusiasm for the best of photography was infectious. Whenever you met him, he made you feel photography was worthwhile … He enriched my life and nobody can ask more of another.”
Click on the video below for a glimpse into his life. A film called Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay.