It is a fine day in May, and the trees are leafing out, showing the bright tender green I associate with newness, and the sun is shining, and the news from Costa Rica is that Bill Jay has died in his sleep.
It is thus my reluctant duty this fine morning to write an obituary for Bill, a task for which I feel wholly inadequate as well as wholly unprepared. I knew his work well and he himself in passing. Bill only recently moved to Costa Rica; I last talked to him just before he left the United States. After a long and active teaching career at Arizona, he planned a long and relaxing retirement, which hardly got its legs underneath it before it ended. I think he was still shy of seventy years old, and I am old enough myself now to consider that a young age at which to bring things to a close.
Bill Jay was not a major photographer, although I think he was a very, very good one (I like portraits, and especially portraits of photographers, and I like black-and-white, especially 35mm black-and-white. We might be talking about a good match here—although I really do think he is—was—a gifted portraitist). Bill was also perhaps not a great critic or a major theorist of photography, although he was one of the best to read, and even though he co-wrote (with his great good friend David Hurn, of Magnum) one of the very best books of photo-instruction ever written. He was not the most important magazine editor of the past half century, although he was very good at that, too—and by now you've got the pattern.
Most current photographers and photo-enthusiasts know him from his "Endnotes" column in Lenswork magazine. Photographers of my generation know him better as the author of a series of wide-ranging essays nominally about photography, collected in several Nazraeli Press books, the most famous of which is Occam's Razor: An Outside-In View of Contemporary Photography, which is currently, but no doubt not permanently, out of print.
I marked hearing the news by listening to Ivan Moravec's recording of Beethoven's 14th piano sonata, which I've heard too often and reserve for special occasions now, while rereading, for about the sixth time, "The Family of Man," just to hear Bill's wise, iconoclastic voice. But of course as I paged toward it, what I couldn't help catching was a line he quoted approvingly in the essay prior: "There is something bloody fishy about human existence."
Bill Jay was a lifelong enthusiast and supporter of photographers. He was photography's best fan. He was one of those who paid attention, who understood and appreciated how people used cameras to express themselves. He saw the linkages between the best work by good people and the fullness and richness and paradox of this fishy existence.
Bill was born in Britain. He died in Costa Rica. He was a citizen of the art of photography. He gave us a lot. He's left too soon, on a day in Spring.