By Jim Hughes
More than three decades ago, Bill Jay jotted some words in the left-hand margin of a print from a photograph he'd snapped of me and my wife Evelyn at an SPE conference (I discovered the image itself only recently on a website devoted to Bill)*: "Jim is now editor of the photo-magazine Camera Arts. (I was amazed to find that I was listed as contributing editor although I had never been asked.) Jim is a refreshing change from the typical academic artist—he is irreverent, opinionated, direct, and speaks simple English. I like his writing for the same reason—I can understand it, and I agree with most of his opinions. I only wish he would reply to my letters......"
I had known Bill since 1968, when he had just been named editor of the British magazine Creative Camera, and he and his publisher, Colin Osman, were touring the States. They were looking for photographers who might inspire their readers back home and paid me a visit at Camera 35, which I was editing at the time. Bill and I had a lot in common; I came to like and respect him enormously. (Later, Bill and Colin had a rather acrimonious falling out and Bill started his own magazine, Album, which published only 12 issues that quickly became classics.) Eventually, Bill resettled in the U.S., became a distinguished educator at Arizona State University, and authored untold numbers of uncommonly intelligent articles and books.
My uncommunicative nature notwithstanding, I did publish that article of Bill's I'd been holding, in the third issue of Camera Arts, April/May 1981. I titled it "The Petrified Forest." Bill retitled it later, on his 2007 website, "Incest in Academia."
In it, he wrote:
Ten years ago, I was ardently engaged in a continuous and seemingly hopeless battle to establish 'photography as art.' The battle was being waged on many fronts in many lands by scores of committed individuals. My own particular frontline was England, where commentators wrote that I 'led a crusade rather than a campaign' and waged it with 'missionary zeal.' Others were no less zealous for the cause throughout Europe and America. In the past few years, the greatest rout occurred in the U.S.A.; photography has decisively stormed the art establishment. Here, at least, the battle is won. But...if I could have predicted the results of the victory I am not so sure that I would have been such an energetic fighter in the cause.
Photography-as-art has led us into a morass of problems that denigrate the medium. I am thinking of the fact that galleries—and not the photographer's peers—are now the arbiters of taste and photographic merit; that 'success' is equated with fame and not with an individual's struggle to transcend self; that photographic journalism is riddled with pompous, unintelligible art-jargon and that clear, informative prose is hard to find; that photographers' egos have become so inflated that the individual's integrity has floated out of sight; that differentness, perversity, and slickly presented banality is touted as photography of the highest quality; that gallery and media hype has replaced a long-term committed paying-of-dues and that instant 'stars,' created by publicity and comprising nothing more substantial than hot gases, have diverted attention from the serious worker who has quietly struggled to maintain his or her vision and faith over many years; that something inexplicably yet intrinsically photographic has been killed in the fight for art acceptance.
I can't say that Bill Jay softened his position in the decades that followed. In his acceptance speech upon receiving an Infinity Award in 2008 from the International Center of Photography, he declared:
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 an Artist was ludicrous. 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 is 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.
Writing for the Saturday Arts section of The New York Times ("An Art World Gathering, Divided by Money," Dec. 8, 2012), Patricia Cohen termed the recent Art Basel Miami Beach a "celebration of wretched excess." As Cohen reports, "Prominent art writers and critics...have been attacking the art world, arguing that the staggering sums of money being spent on works are distorting judgments about art and undermining its long-term cultural significance. [...] In its special edition for the opening day of the fair, The Art Newspaper asked whether 'the art world is facing a crisis of values' because of the 'pernicious influence of the market on art.'"
I regret to say that photography, now for the most part elevated to at least stepchild status in the heady world of fine art, has fallen prey to the seductress called Commerce. There is no denying it. And we can place at least some of the blame on no less an eminence than Bill Jay, the iconoclastic editor, writer, critic, scholar, historian, and teacher of photographic values who passed away too soon only a few years ago.
As you may have noted a few paragraphs earlier, he admitted as much himself.
Years ago, probably at about the time Bill photographed us, Evelyn and I, Charlie and Regina Reynolds, David Lyman and Kate Carter, and Bill Jay—I don't think he had a companion that night—all went out to dinner after a long day of portfolio viewing at the annual meeting of the Society for Photographic Educators. I think this was in Colorado.
Charlie entertained us with card tricks (besides being a picture editor of note, he was an accomplished magician who rarely performed in public; he preferred designing stage magic for the likes of Doug Henning); David and Kate regaled us with stories of miscreants who tried to pass themselves off as serious students at the Maine Photographic Workshops; after dessert, Bill, who evidently fancied himself to be something of a graphologist, asked to see samples of our handwriting. I showed him my driver's license, which contained my nearly indecipherable scribble. He nodded knowingly, and asked if I had an earlier example. Turned out I did: an ID card I'd signed when I was in grade school, and had transferred from wallet to wallet as they disintegrated over the years. Every letter in the painstaking script of my youth was clearly legible.
After some intense study, he announced, "Jim, you are trying to disappear!"
"What does that mean?" I demanded. "You obviously want to be a hermit," Bill answered, laughing, his hands gesturing with a flourish toward some sort of distant infinity.
Actually, I told the group after some introspection, his prescient observation was not entirely inaccurate. I had recently purchased a dilapidated old fishing camp on a pond in Maine, and was driving up for long weekends and vacations to make it at least habitable. It was about as far away from my workaday world in New York as I could imagine. But it wasn't until spring of 2009—close to the very day that Bill died in his sleep at his new retirement home in Samara, Costa Rica—that we finally sold our Brooklyn brownstone after 42 years, and moved to the Arts and Crafts bungalow we'd purchased for our own retirement a few years earlier.
Another far more famous writer now lives in our former Brooklyn home. His name is Martin Amis (yes, the novelist, Kingsley's son). Based on what little I've read about him lately, he seems as comfortable shining in the spotlight as I am made uncomfortable by the very thought of it, shunning the attention it brings whenever possible. Like Bill, Amis is now a transplanted Brit, as they say in the tabloid press that seems to dog his every step.
But I think that's as far as any comparison can be stretched. Bill Jay wrote fact, not fiction. And he clearly saw the dangers of chasing fame and fortune. Bill was a genuine visionary in the art we all love.
*The JPEG of the finished print of Jim and Evelyn reproduced at the top of the post is from the BillJayOnPhotography website referenced in the opening paragraph. The original written-upon workprint can be seen at the website of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College, Chicago.
Ed. Note: "Pond" is what lakes are called in Maine.
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Steve Rosenblum: "The book On Being A Photographer by Bill Jay and David Hurn influenced me more than any other prose I have ever read about photography. Required reading."