When researching the photography of dog walking I became distracted and diverted. Research is like that, I start on one subject, find a lead to another and so on and so on until I am way off topic but usually richer for having taken the journey.
Dog walking led to Keith Arnatt who led to David Hurn, more about him later, which took me to Bill Jay and one of the most delightful books about photography that I have ever read.
Bill Jay, The Best of Endnotes (1) is a treasure trove of anecdotes, musings and insightful comment on all things photography. It is rare, if not unique, that a book on photography causes the reader to laugh out loud, or at least to laugh because the book is meant to be amusing, but this one does. Let’s face it Susan Sontag for all her wisdom would not raise a smile let alone a belly laugh and as for Roland Barthes, well enough said. Bill Jay died in Costa Rica at the age of 68 only six months after retiring as a writer perhaps proving the truth of Arnold Newman’s comment that “complete retirement is inviting death”. As a sixty something old myself with a full time, post retirement job, a bit of part time teaching and a photography degree to squeeze into a busy family life I hope the opposite of Newman’s thought is true.
Jay had aspirations to be a professional photographer but a frank appraisal of his portfolio by David Hurn, who said his work was merely derivative of the photographers he admired (i), had two important outcomes. Firstly it released Jay to take the photographs he wanted to take for himself and secondly kept him on track to become one of the most respected photography writers, curators, historians and educators of his generation. (ii)
Instead of becoming side-tracked and attempting to write Jay’s biography, perhaps a task for another day, I will limit myself to reviewing The Best of Endnotes.
From April 2000 until just before his death in 2009 Jay wrote a column for LensWork magazine, this book is Jay’s and Brooks Jensen’s (iii) selection of the best of those columns, columns that Jensen says should have been called FirstNotes because “I suspect most readers, with the arrival of each new issue, turned first to Bill’s observations”.
What makes Jay both exceptional, and let’s face it, highly unusual in the world of photography writing is his straight forward, humorous but elegant prose. As David Hurn explains in his foreword to this little book “For me he was the most interesting of writers on photography, partly because he wrote in a language that we all actually speak”. Jay was an arch communicator and educator, he had little time for those academics who hide their meaning behind a shroud of intellectual and dreary reasoning and counter reasoning and believed that “ninety-nine percent of the most erudite essays in the history of photography have been written by practicing photographers”. In End Notes he quotes a letter about Susan Sontag from Gretchen Garner “I’m never quite sure what her main point really is. In this case, I guess, it is just that pictures of violence don’t seem capable of stoping war. Too bad, but I guess that is true.” He argued that it was not that Sontag lacked a thesis but that she had so many that “the reader is bludgeoned into inarticulate flounderings under the assault of a multiplicity of heady assertions.”
His views are nothing if not contentious; he spears whole contemporary genres in short, sharp stabs of his pen saying that the banal is “so inconsequential it rightly has no name” and ridicules the fashion photographer Herb Ritts for saying that in the future people would want to know about Madonna because she was photographed by Ritts. But, he saves the best of his acerbic wit for art-speak, a grumpy-old-man’s viewpoint that I wholeheartedly share, “what used to called an attractive composition is now called existential reality-modfication.” This short book is made up of hundreds of such statements, perhaps explaining why he was often described as a curmudgeon but here was man, noted for his encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of photography, who was able to cut through the fluff that surrounds photography and discuss, in ways we can all understand, the practice and motivations of the greatest photographers.
It is perhaps dangerous to attempt to identify a theme that runs through nearly ten years of these notes and I accept that my judgement is coloured by being half way through reading On Photography (5) which he co-wrote with David Hurn. However, I will still do so. Jay loved the great photographers of his time, Weegee, Henri Cartier Bresson, Bill Brandt and many others, he saw them first and foremost as photographers , men and women who could offer a special insight into the human condition through their clever, stylish and technically excellent pictures. They did not need to adopt the airs and graces of artists, he is scathing of those that did such as Man Ray and Cecil Beaton, and he was horrified that the art world had appropriated photography as a collectible possession to hang in millionaires’ homes rather than valuing it as the most powerful form of communication ever invented.
Notes on Text
(i) I have come across a few different descriptions of this conversion. Amanda Hopkinson, writing in the Guardian, provides the most extensive quote of Hurn’s comments: “”Boring. Lots of others can do this sort of stuff better than you, photographers are ten 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.” (2)
(ii) Bill Jay’s photographs appear to be rather inaccessible on line. There is a small collection held by the University of Arizona (3) which gives a limited sense of his work. His photographs of photographers are historically interesting but the book containing them seems to be a little too collectible and is therefore currently expensive second hand. A larger permanent collection is available on-line at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (4), each of these seemingly casual pictures of his photographer friends have hand-witten notes attached but these are unfortunately impossible to read.
(iii) The editor of LensWork.
(1) Jay, Bill (2009) LensWork #83: the Best of Bill Jay’s EndNotes. (Kindle Edition 2011) Anacortes: LensWork Publishing
(5) Hurn, David & Jay, Bill (1997) On Being a Photographer: A Practical Guide. (Kindle Edition 2010) Anacortes: LensWork Publishing.
(2) Hopkinson, Amanda (2009) Bill Jay: Photographer who Found a Niche as an Advocate of his Art (accessed at The Guardian 6.12.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/aug/05/bill-jay-obituary
(3) Jay, Bill (accessed at The University of Arizona 7.12.15) – http://ccp-emuseum.catnet.arizona.edu/view/objects/asimages/search@?t:state:flow=908a4766-5587-4112-9033-0e9726c31e26
(4) Jay, Bill (accessed at The Museum of Contemporary Photography 7.12.15) – http://www.mocp.org/detail.php?t=objects&type=all&f=&s=bill+jay&record=16