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Monday, 10 December 2012


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Lucky Jim.

THE GALLERINA, A FILM BY AARON ROSE http://vimeo.com/48283834# A wry comment on the gallery scene.

Made me think of David Vestal, without whose 'The Craft of Photography' I'd be a vastly lesser photographer. Still alive, still kicking! Made me think of my gal's dad's favorite toast: "Here's to us! Who's like us? Damn few and they're all dead!"

A lot of Bill Jay's writings are on the site in PDF form for free.

e.g. The whole Incest in Academia is here


Lots of his articles are on the site in PDF form and make for interesting reading.


A few are missing (some PDF filenames are confusing a window server). I've asked the webmaster back in in October if he could fix those. He still might :-)

On Being A Photographer used to be availble as a PDF too.

LensWork devoted a column by Bill Jay entitled EndNotes for almost 10 years from 2000-2009. After he passed away, Issue No. 83 was a compilation of the best of his EndNotes writing. It is a roller coaster of a read and a ride I take every couple of years.

Wow! What's to soften? Shame we don't have more like him at any age on any continent.

Man... The BillJayOnPhotography website should have stuck with the original rendering of that portrait. The version they posted looks rather funk-ified tonally.

Personal histories aside, I've been thinking exactly along these lines - and saying so to anyone who would listen - for as long as I can remember. The gallery/museum scene has led to an almost complete perversion of the value system in photography.

There are two books that taught me more about photography than any others. "Examples" by Ansel Adams taught me about the How. But "On Being a Photograper" by Mr. Joy & Mr. Hurn made me understand the Why. Their other book "On Looking at Photographs" was very nearly as valuable.

Glorious, wonderful books that make me want to take out the Rollei.

Amen to David Vestal! Such clarity.

And back to Bill Jay. Was there any mention of his columns in Lenswork? Perhaps I missed it.


1. Part of what he was commenting on was the switch from photographers who were primarily -- or trained as -- photojournalists (i.e., people who go into photography as photography) vs. artists who happen to work in photography as a medium, or who use photography to capture their transient works, but who do not think of themselves as photographers.

2. Whenever people lament the high prices paid for art, what they usually mean is one of two things: (a) I can no longer afford the art I want to buy, which frustrates me, or (b) the art I like isn’t being valued as highly as other art that I dislike, so clearly the system is broken and corrupt, because my taste is infallible, I obviously know what art is good and others do not (and no, my ego isn’t bruised and I don’t need external validation, how could you ever think such a thing!).

3. I will never understand why some people complain about the fact that other people, who are spending their own money, are buying art that the complainers consider bad art or the wrong kind of art. It is the buyers’ money. Who are you to say how they should spend it? Will you also tell them what house to buy, what food to eat, what books to read? If they are buying the “wrong” art, that creates an opportunity for you. Go buy what you consider the “right” art. Create a market for it. Educate people about it. But of course it is much easier to sit there and complain…and taking potshots are the “rich”, artists, students, gallerists and “intellectuals” is so much easier…even if it doesn’t change anything or do any good.

4. How hard you work, and how many years you have put in, is largely irrelevant. Sure, it is easier to spot talent when there is a large body of brilliant work to look at. Spotting young talent is hard. But talent in art is not very different from talent in other fields. Some people have it and others don’t. Yes, even if you have talent, you need to work at it. But the truly talented can produce startlingly good work even at a young age. You can become a technically better photographer over time, and additional life experience often helps people develop a sense of nuance and greater understanding of their subject matter, but it isn’t a pre-requisite. We don’t wait until athletes, mathematicians or musicians reach middle age to recognize their special gifts, why should it be any different for artists (including photographers)?

5. Then the complainers (see item 3., above) attempt to justify their complaints by sticking up for the artists. Their complaints are not selfish and ego-driven; instead, their complaints are intended to improve the system for the benefit of society and others. The broken and inefficient art system does not allocate dollars efficiently. As a result, the Good Artists are being neglected and are unable to support themselves, while the Worthless Hacks make millions. This, of course, is a new phenomenon. Until roughly the 1980s, the art market was wonderfully efficient. Talented artists never went undiscovered and financially successful artists were always Good. Moreover, the fact that this malaise is limited to the field of [art][photography] proves that this market is suffering from a unique dysfunction. If only the [art][photography] market were more like the market for musicians and authors, where hard work, years of experience, talent and financial success always go hand-in-hand. [S.A.]

I’m bored. Let’s go shoot some fish in a bucket…


Before anyone get’s all worked up, yes, I know that Bill Jay had a lot offer and the above isn’t really directed at him. I have read and enjoyed his writings. But presenting his vision in summarized form tends to make him appear one-dimensional, especially when his supposed vision rehashes old, tired, yet evergreen clichés.

Best regards,

"...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;"

Wow! What marvelous command of the language by both Jim and his quotes from Bill. A breath of fresh air not to see the oft-used "crap" and "sucks" for emphasis that we find on many blogs.

Thank you both!


I'm sure any number of people would castigate me for the following opinion, but...IMHO, the market is just fine. Bill Jay, who had a large number of opinions I respected, had an equally large number of opinions that I thought reflected the kind of irascibility that develops in the elderly when things in life haven't gone as they may have wished.

I mean, before the market got going, were people happy with a situation in which photographers couldn't make anything approaching a decent living through their work? Sure, there's an astronomical amount of bullshit floating around the art market, but guess what -- there always has been. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the art market, say, in France in the 1860s, or New York in the 40s, would see the same kind of thing we see in here US today. That didn't keep a lot of great art from being made. I've always felt that people whose opinions are similar to Jay's would be a lot less irascible if *their* art was the stuff that was being sold for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars...

As for the comment quoted by Jim, "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."

I mean, that's just nonsense. Virtually any really fine (or "great") artist that you can think of was a high achiever when young. One of the older of the people so recognized was Van Gogh, who died when he was 39 (I think -- I didn't look it up), but he'd been painting for only ten years or so...and by the time he'd been painting six years, he was already producing art later recognized as "great." (By the way, he sold more than one painting in his life; and he may not have committed suicide.)

The same is true among photographers...who among those we accept as "great" or "exceptional" were ignored until they were old, if they made any attempt to market their art at all? (And here I'd except here the outsider artists, who usually didn't make a marketing attempt.) It's true that they might not have gotten rich with their art, but they were known and respected within the art community. They didn't have to wait for a "lifetime of achievement" until they were recognized.

In fact, I'd say the situation is largely reversed, from that reflected in Jay's comment: the very best photographic artists have usually produced what people call their "best" art early in their careers.

Anyhooo...that's what I think.


(Made me think of my gal's dad's favorite toast: "Here's to us! Who's like us? Damn few and they're all dead!")
Remind me on this :"In the flock is warmer,but it smells" M.Krleza

'On Being A Photographer' is available in print (via Lulu), in Kindle format, and in ePUB format through Lenswork: http://www.lenswork.com/obp.htm

I could not overstate how deeply Jay's book, Negative/Positive has affected my creative life. It goes way beyond craft and art into who we are and what we value as central to our work. Lenswork, for which Jay was a regular contributor, offers a chapter in this free issue. I believe anyone will be better creatively and personally for taking this work to heart.


THE GALLERINA, A FILM BY AARON ROSE http://vimeo.com/48283834# A wry comment on the gallery scene.


This is great. Thanks.

Don't know what to say about this, but reading it reminded me of what an old editor of the New Art Examiner in Chicago once told me back in the 80's:

"You have some romantic and catholic viewpoint of the art world, and it's a dirty little business, as dirty as any cut-rate used car lot."

No matter how revered one is in any field, we start heading down a slippery slope when we start thinking we have the "right" idea about what is art and someone else has the "wrong" idea. To sell anything as "art" is to already make it into a commodity with somewhat defined standards about it's sales potential. I meet very few people creating anything on a full time basis who aren't concerned with it's sales potential; especially in a field as expensive as photography. One cannot work in the corner candy store any more and do "art" at night. The costs of living are so different than even in the 60's and 70's, not least of which is medical insurance, that most peoples "real" jobs allow them only to go home and stare at the tv, or if they're lucky, go to a nearby library. I remember when galleries took 10%, now they tale upwards of 50-60%, because it costs scads of money to keep your door open. Even liability insurance is more than most can afford, in case someone trips over the spilt cheap wine on an opening you're having.

I guess what I'm saying is that the art movements from the 20's to the early 70's should be mourned as a lost time. It has nothing to do with the people, and a whole lot to do with the costs of everything...

I sorely miss Bill Jay, whom I never met.

I always read his column at the back of LensWork before looking at anything else in each issue; I am quite sure that I was not alone in this!

You list of Bill's books (on Amazon) is missing one of his best... "Men Like Me" (http://www.amazon.com/Men-Like-Me-Bill-Jay/dp/1590051343)

I wanted to comment on this "artist" bit. In reading the main post/article I was immediately struck by how loaded the term "artist" seems to be to the writer and in the quotation from Bill Jay. So, here's another perspective: artist as a term is no different than any other descriptive of a workmode---garbage collector, lawyer, hit man, nurse, & etc. The term itself is neutral---it says nothing about the quality of that person's art. Larding the term "artist" up with a bunch of exceptionalist expectation is very wrong headed, I think, and I speak as an artist.

It is true that the worth of the work takes time to assess and/or reveal itself, and that process may take centuries. Therefore do not mistake the shenanigans of marketeers using galleries and/or art fairs and/or auctions as a platform to put ever more stuff on the consumption table for the delectation of those with enough money to buy objects that have no practical use in daily life. Don't even worry about it. It's been this way now for decades and it says much more about the valuelessness of money to a certain class of the uber-wealthy than it does about anything to do with art. The two things are very nearly completely detached from one another. Excellent evaluations about art are still being made, daily, but the markets have very little to do with it, and only in some pretty indirect ways. And much of the material that is being collected today will wind up in long term storage in as little as 100 years. Honestly, this is true of a lot of art from past ages as well. I work at a museum and so does my wife, and I can tell you unequivocally that storage is the biggest headache all museums share today.

Thank you Jim for once again sharing your recollections, this time of Bill Jay. I first learned of Bill Jay by reading his short pieces during my LensWork subscription years. I've also long-since read "On Being a Photographer", the series of loose interviews with Jay and David Hurn published by Brooks Jensen. It is an entertaining read, although I do not, and would not, prescribe it as required photography reading as Steve and so many others do.

At the risk of committing heresy I must admit that Bill Jay spent way too much time barking at the passing parade from his front porch rocker for my tastes. I am the first to admit to frequent dismay with much of the photographic "art works" that get heavily promoted today. But lamenting "what's wrong with photography and photographers" with a self-righteous scolding tone, as Jay often did, may be self-soothing but it is neither very insightful nor informative.

The world of 20th century photography, the world that Bill Jay proclaimed such love for, ain't comin' back. That world was almost entirely sponsored by news and fashion press waves that have long subsided, diffused and morphed. It is one of the great ironies of history that at a time when more people are taking more photographs in more ways than ever photography as a celebrated stand-alone technical visual medium is all but completely over. That chapter began closing over a decade ago as soon as photography merged with consumer electronics and images became so easily malleable with software.

Photography has not been "hijacked by the art market" nor has it really "fallen prey to the seductress called Commerce". Those are slightly green-eyed impressions gleaned from garish auction headlines. Photography, as an art form, is going the only direction it can go: it is being subsumed by contemporary art. Where did John Szarkowski and so many later promoters think it would go in a digital age? Or did they think that far ahead?

Nevertheless, the best artifacts of photography's 20th century heydays are more highly-valued than ever among collectors. For every million dollar Sherman there are countless Winogrands, Adams, and Man Rays changing hands for rich sums. Moreover these works will continue to be cud for endless future rumination by curators and art historians.

Those who consider themselves elder statesmen of photography's legacy should suppress the urge to snarl at the new. That's a one-way express ticket to irrelevance. Either find a way to productively guide and participate through instruction or, better, through actions or be still and let it go. This last paragraph is as directed at myself as at anyone reading it.

The part about young people not being artists is not true. The "best photographers in the medium" need not spend their lives toiling away in obscurity to become true "artists". Art is about vision and ability, not miles logged.

I'm in the middle of reading the Kindle version of "On Being a Photographer" right now. Quite interesting, but it makes me feel like I should be working much harder than I do.

Dear Jim,

I am quite amazed at how much I find myself in utter disagreement with these particular utterances by Bill. I simply say, “What he said,” to the comments by adamct and John Camp. No need to repeat them, as they include so many of my own thoughts. Beyond that, I have several further objections of my own, but I think I'll save any lengthy explication for a wonderfully insightful [he said ever so modestly] column of my own. Some short thoughts, though:

The competing definitions of “artist” as “someone who is attempting to create art” and “someone who does work that is good” are so far apart that the gulf is unbridgeable. I'm in the former camp, Bill is in the latter.

The culture wars between the Photo Impressionists and the f/64 school demonstrated that photography suffered no lack of its own self-generated arbitrary and capricious gatekeepers of the True Way.

The massive democratization of presentation presented by the inter-web puts lie to the notion that “photography as Art” prevents work from being seen in its true photographic merits (admittedly short-handing what Bill said, but a hugely loaded and highly dubious concept in and of itself).

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

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