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.

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