Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Men Like Me" -- missing Bill Jay

I never met Bill Jay. I wish I had because I’m guessing that he and I would have gotten along just fine thank you very much. He was insightful, articulate, passionate about photography, and sharply critical of those who lard photography up with a thick layer of abstract, even metaphysical, pseudo-meaning. His writing was clear, to the point, and often very witty. I recently met one of the legion of students that passed through the photography program at Arizona State during Jay’s long tenure there. He confirmed my suspicion that Jay was an inspiring teacher who demanded a great deal of his students and no less of himself. I’m sure he could be cranky and without doubt highly opinionated, too – I like that in a person.

Jay’s death at 69 last year left me feeling as if I had lost an old friend.

I just finished re-reading his “Occam’s Razor: an Outside-In View of Contemporary Photography”. This 1992 book is a compendium of several, loosely connected, short articles about the then-contemporary art photography scene. The tone of the book is of “pointing with pride and viewing with concern”. It is positively frightening that this book has not become dated: the directions in which he points with pride and the vistas over which he views with concern are still with us 20 years later.

One of the “viewing with concern” bits has to do with those are striving to be different and who disdain the history of the medium because they do not want to be influenced by the past. In the essay “So much for individuality”, he quotes Lionel Trilling who said, “The immature artist imitates. Mature artists steal.” Keep this quote in mind for later.

Early on Bill Jay decided (well, after a dope slap from his lifelong friend, David Hurn) that his career in photography lay as a historian, teacher, and author rather than in doing photography. Not that Jay didn’t take photographs – or that he wasn’t good at it. Over the years, he made a point of photographing most of the photographers that he interviewed. “Portraits of Photographers: 1968-2006” was published, I believe, in 2008. It is a wonderful book of sensitive, technically adept, portraits -- mostly men because many of the women photographers he interviewed declined to be photographed.

After retiring from teaching in 1999 he moved to a California beach community. His early morning wanderings led him to the acquaintance and “a feeling of kinship” with a community of “over-the-hill, sartorially challenged, with abundant facial hair” men. Nazraeli published his heavily cropped portraits of them in 2005 as “Men Like Me” – and Jay’s face is one of those in the book. Portraits from this project were also featured in Lenswork (for which Jay wrote a column for several years) and in Black and White magazine. The response from the art-photography world was a mildly grudging “Jay has finally done something original.’

Two weeks ago I was at the opening of a photography show at the Larson Gallery in Yakima (in which I have six photographs, by the way). In addition to the work on the walls, the curator had placed a selection of books from their library on display to give the opening-goers a view of photography’s history. Among these books was a retrospective of Bill Brandt’s work. I opened it at random to “Left Eye of Max Ernst: 1965”, a closely cropped portrait of a heavily seamed man’s face. Several similar portraits followed. Brandt was one of Bill Jay’s all-time most admired photographers. He could not possibly have been unaware of these portraits. Bill Jay, in doing this project, was not only presenting an honest, revealing, bold view of these men but was also “cocking a snoot” (as he often put it) one more time.

“Mature artists steal.”  And I'll bet that this one snickered, too.

Monday, October 4, 2010

An Afternoon with Sandra Kroupa

Sandra Kroupa was recently interviewed for a series in her professional journal on “dream jobs”. She enthusiastically concurs that she has one. Her official job title is “Book Arts and Rare Book Curator” for the University of Washington’s Allen Library. Last Friday she met with a gaggle of photographers from the University of Washington Photographers’ Group (UWPG) to talk about and show examples from the library’s collection of art books emphasizing books of photographs and art books that use photographic processes. See:

for a wonderful interview with her.

Ms. Kroupa brought a heaping library cart full of examples from the collection, all in tidy archival boxes made by the library’s conservation department. She gave us an overview of the book arts and rare book collection, part of the “Special Collections” section of the Allen Library. “Special Collections” is best known for its superb Northwest Collection but has over 14,000 items in the book arts and rare books collection. She emphasized that the collection is much broader than she could begin to show us in a short program. It contains, for example, books that are important historically, or that mark milestones in the technology of printing and publishing. For instance, she showed us a first edition with dust jacket of “On the Road” and a first edition in English of “The Decisive Moment” with the dust jacket illustration done by Henri Matisse. Neither of these books are remarkable as art objects. “On the Road” is straight text and the catalog of the recent Cartier-Bresson retrospective shows HCB’s work to much better advantage. However -- in the world of jazz certain artists are referred to as “horn changers” – those whose playing changes forever the way in which a given instrument is regarded. For the trumpet, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis are “horn changers”. These books are “horn changers” and there is something about seeing the original articles that I found very moving.

She then turned to books produced by conventional printing and binding technology that either are of photographs or that incorporate photographs into more complex images. The reproductions in these books are very high quality but are produced in fairly large quantities – tens, hundreds, or a few thousand – that are aimed at a connoisseur or collector market. Denise Wolf of Aperture did an excellent talk on this niche market at Seattle Art Museum earlier this year. One especially beautiful example that Ms. Kroupa showed us was of photographs of broken glass paired with poems by Silvia Plath. The rich warm blacks and open, slightly soft midtones of the photographs reproduced splendidly in offset printing on a creamy paper. Alas, I cannot remember the name of the artist.

Ms. Kroupa then moved on to her real passion – books that are art objects in themselves as well as in content. These are one-of-a-kind or are in very small, limited editions. Every aspect of them, from the materials to the printing to the binding, are part of the artwork. She refuses to enter into the debate about “What is a book?” that has been raging in the academic world for some time. She also refuses to enter the debate about whether a one-of-a-kind object belongs in an art museum or in a library. Instead she casts her net as widely as she can for materials that she feels are important in the development of book art. Only some of the unusual work that she showed us:

• A book of a few pages printed on cloth that combined cyanotype and brief texts with glass (perhaps acrylic) rods stitched together as a spine.

• A doll-sized bed with handmade stuffed mattress, quilts, coverlet and pillow. Each fabric surface was stitched with text taken from a historically important text by a 19th century woman author.

• “Panorama” – a pop-up book for grownups – that on alternated pages with fold up revealed text on the issues of climate change and species extinction and pages with exquisite, layered pop-ups that combined text and hand-painted art.

Ms. Kroupa is quick to point out that, while many of the items she adds to the book art and rare book collection are very expensive, her acquisitions budget is miniscule. Most acquisitions either are outright gifts or are heavily subsidized by generous donors.

She is a passionate believer in the importance of the physical object (as opposed to viewing on a computer screen) even for art books that could be scanned page by page. She feels that experiencing the object as the artist intended is an integral part of the experience. However, she does not disdain the notion of using computers to create work from scratch as book art.

She concluded by noting that if you called and described your special interests you could make an appointment to visit the Allen Library and view items from their collection (an invitation that I certainly intend to accept).