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Thursday, 14 May 2009


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That's very sad news. Anyone not familiar with Bill Jay's writing can find lots of it on his website: billjayonphotography.com

Anyone who has not read his essay "The Thing Itself" should just go ahead and download it now: http://www.billjayonphotography.com/The%20Thing%20Itself.pdf

Thanks for sharing this unfortunate news. My only knowledge of Bill Jay comes from reading (recently) On Being A Photographer (one of the best photography books I've read). I'm only now looking at Jay's website for the first time - what a wealth of articles ! I just read "How to be Famous Sort Of". I would not have guessed from On Being A Photographer that he had such a sense of humor. I also browsed the portraits of photographers and a few things struck me: 1. I'm not familiar with very many photographers. 2. Most of them are considerably older than I would have expected and 3. despite that, almost all have more hair than I do.

I'll continue reading Jay's articles and essays. I expect to find plenty of reinforcement of the beliefs expressed in OBAP, particularly the emphasis on subject. I found that concept, in particular, very liberating.

Followup to my last post - for anyone who has not read "On Being A Photographer" - at least read this essay:

I don't count myself as an expert critic, but I have read (and more importantly, looked at) photography magazines and I think that he actually was the most important editor over the last half century - for his time at Creative Camera and Album, but especially the former (he didn't stay all that long, and naturally there were reactions against him, but the enthusiasm and eclecticism carried us along, we couldn't wait to see what came next month. I actually rate him just ahead of the wonderful Allan Porter of Camera and the obvious Minor White.

Sad news indeed, he really did help shape the way photography is today.

A very nice tribute Mike.

I've long been aware of Bill Jay, but I haven't carried through by giving his work--both written and photographic--the attention it deserves. This will change.

His photograph of Bill Brandt is exceptional...truly one of the most remarkable portraits I've seen.

Sometimes it just takes one shot and you know it has everything to do with being good, and nothing to do with luck or accident.

I very much enjoyed looking at his portraits. Very fine stuff. I would love to learn more about the process of taking portraits. Very nicely composed piece, Mike. ch

I'm shocked to tears. It was too soon! When I was a photography student at ASU in the early '80's, an afternoon talking in Bill's office set the course for the rest of my life. Any one of us can only dream of making the contributions such a soul and such an educator made in his altogether too short a life. Bill, I wish you joyful travels.

I did not have the pleasure of knowing or even ever meeting Bill Jay, but I read Views on Nudes, Occam's Razor, Cyanide and Spirits, Sun in the Blood of the Cat, and a variety of essays as I came across them. I much agree with you that he was one of the best critics and theorists to read, and I suspect that what you mean about him not being among the best in absolute terms is that such a critic and theorist necessarily must write in turgid prose, with all the humor of a government circular, and in a manner that reveals being less than fully steeped in the history and practice of photography.

Thanks for the link to his website, which I did not know about. The bibliography and full text of so many essays is a treat. Let's hope it does not disappear.

Every other month, much to the annoyance of my wife who is usually trying to engage me in conversation, I would eagerly rip open the cardboard mailer so I could thumb to the back of my new issue of Lenswork and read the Bill Jay column.

He will be missed.


This is very sad. I have been heavily influenced by Bill from when I started dabbling in photography..."On being a photographer" was the first photographic book I ever bought...I am at a loss on what to say...

I also am shocked to tears. I first discovered Bill's writing in LensWork, but since then have been an avid collector of everything that I could get my hands on written by Bill.

I felt his love for photography, and although I never met him, I certainly had great affection for his writing and his wit.

I hope someone (Brooks Jensen?) puts together a retrospective of Bill Jay's photography and makes it available - it would be a fitting tribute to a great voice in photography.

I became aquainted with Bill Jay some
years ago when attending a seminar, that he gave on the rules for making a photo essay. He was an articulate critic, with a common sense approach to photography.

I'm with Joe -- I often skipped to the end of Lenswork to see what Bill Jay had written. His prose reminded me often that we need not always be so serious.

Ben Marks

The thing that I so appreciated about Bill's writing is how he consistently cut through and exposed the vast piles of BS that exist around the "academics" of photography. He often seemed to me to be the only sensible voice out there.

I especially loved how he would excoriate writers whose prose was completely unintelligible and filled with ridiculous jargon.

What a joy to read. What an ability to "get real" about writing about this lovely art form. The back of Lenswork will just not be the same and I will miss his contribution to my photographic life...

I certainly feel the loss. Of course I've long been a reader his LensWork "End Notes". But LensWork's "On Being a Photographer", which Bill co-authored with David Hurn, remains nearby and always ready to give me an inspirational snort of oxygen...which I often need.

Ya done good, Bill. You were admired and loved, and will be missed, by many more people than you'll ever realize.

The only reason I ever bought Lenswork was for his essays.

I have Bill's book and I still pick it up from time to time just re-read some part of it, and I always looked forward to reading "EndNotes". I am saddened to hear of Bill's passing and I will miss what he had to say. Good Bye Bill.


This is, indeed, sad news. Bill's writings have had a large influence on the way I think about photography. In recent years when I have found myself over obsessed with gear and the technical aspects of photography rather than with actually making photographs, or, when I have reached beyond the threshold of over-saturation with the pixel peeping that passes for internet based photography discussion--then, I go to the book shelf and pull down one of his books and begin to read....I feel centered and calm again.

He will be missed by me.

I'm sorry that my introduction to Bill Jay is at his death. As in his homage to W. Eugene Smith, he mentions a photographer getting his work done; maybe Bill Jay's work, by offering it on the interwebs as PDFs, was his personal completion. Not sure I'm wording this well, but what reading I've done this afternoon has shown a great voice that is silenced now.

Life is short, art is long.

I first stumbled across Bill Jay via a remaindered copy of Occam's Razor. His rare combination of incisive wit and genuine qood cheer was infectious. I sought out everything I could find after that. I savored every one of the articles on his website, and was genuinely saddened to reach the end of the last one. Like others here I looked forward eagerly to more of his wit with every Lenswork.
Sad news indeed that his unique and generous voice has been silenced.

Ironically, and even more sadly, moments after reading Mike's notice and tribute to Bill I received the current LensWork (#82) in my mailbox. Of course I immediately opened it and turned to Bill's EndNotes...has last?

For those unfamiliar with EndNotes, Bill writes two pages of micro-essays for the final pages of each issue of LensWork. Topics range from sharp, sometimes crabby, criticisms to happy-to-be-alive observations. In this issue Bill proposed four new terms for the photographic cultural lexicon. Here are two of them.

Conpose (verb): To deliberately disorganize a picture in an effort to fool the viewer into thinking it's artistic.

Camnesia (noun): The affliction of reaching for a camera and forgetting what you wanted to photograph. ("I thought there was a picture here, but then I got camnesia.")

How can we not miss a guy that came up with such stuff?

My copy of Lenswork arrived in the mail today. First thing I did was open to the back and read Billy Jay. The superb photographic reproductions in that magazine always had to compete with his writings for my attention. I'll now treasure my collection of Lenswork that much more.

The collection of all the issues of Album that are posted on his site for download are also a fitting memorial. The whole site is, I guess. I hope it will be there for a long time.


I read "On being a photographer" on the bus on the way in to work this morning. I've done so many times and the time always passes quickly. That alone is cause to give thanks to Bill.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear the water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

Rest in peace, Bill

I went back to some old issues of Lenswork and reread some of Bill Jay's EndNotes. His voice will be missed.

Hugh Van Es died this morning.

I have to admit that I've never heard his name before - although I have to admit, that maybe with my 25 years I'm a bit too young and from the wrong part of this globe.

Your writing and the mourns of my fellow readers made me look for "On being a photographer" - but I was stunned: It is available only used, starting from some 190$ in the US or even worse some 400€ here - I hope there will be an affordable reprint of this very likely great book. Maybe, in these market-driven days, this is a lot of appreciation, though...

Like most people I knew Bill's photography not Bill.

I came to him and his work only a few years ago. Like others I read Endnotes first and often went to the photos a day or so later.

Through his book Men Like Me ( one of, and maybe my favorite photo book ever) I learned just as much about Bill as I did the other Men and their stories.

I can't tell you just how shocked and sad I was and still am.

I could care less if he was ever considered the "best" or most respected in any of the things he did. It means nothing.

Bill Jay was the real deal.

Don't they have the book at Lenswork for $12.95? It looked like they did.


Sad news, indeed. I only knew his writing through Lenswork, and I always turned to his column first.

Mike, I had not heard of Bill Jay before today, but it is obvious from your post and readers' comments that you and he were kindred souls. My condolences. And also my thanks for pointing out an online trove of wisdom and humor.

Leads me to wonder if your "random excellence" posts might be extended to critical, editorial and curatorial notables as well as photographers?

I met him in the late 60's in London. He looked at my pictures. A lovely man.

Many, many years ago, I met and chatted with him briefly on the campus of ASU while I was photographing a window grate with my view camera in an alley near the engineering building. He correctly figured out that I wasn't a student there and was curious as to why I had chosen the ASU campus and that particular window to photograph. I recall he chuckled when I told him my 13-year old stepdaughter was taking an art class there and I was simply wandering around killing time because I had to wait for her.

His "Album Magazine" is a real gem and absolutely stunning!

I wonder if anyone has a pointer where to find Issue 9 (if it exists)? It is not available from http://www.billjayonphotography.com/albumintro.html .

Suggestion for LensWork - Publish a book of Bill Jay's "EndNotes" columns. It would be a welcome addition to my library!

Vietnam photographer Hugh Van Es passed the other day too.

From BBC

"From the roof of the UPI bureau, he photographed a large group of people queuing on the roof of a flat to board a US helicopter, which was clearly too small too carry them all."

Lenswork.com says "On being a photographer" is out of stock, unfortunately. But thanks for the hint anyway.

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