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Bill Jay (1940-2009): A Farewell

Self-portrait by Bill Jay, 2004. Copyright © 2004.

Self-portrait by Bill Jay, 2004. Copyright © 2004.

We lost Bill Jay this spring. He died peacefully in his sleep on Sunday, May 10, 2009 in Samara, Costa Rica, where he’d set up residence. He was born in London in 1940.

I got to know Bill after he left England (where he’d served as the first director of the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London and also worked under the late Colin Osman as the first editor of the germinal UK magazine Creative Camera. In 1970 he founded the short-lived but extremely influential UK magazine Album. (You’ll find PDF versions of the full run of this publication here.) He came to the States to study with Van Deren Coke and Beaumont Newhall at the University of New Mexico, then joined the faculty at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ in 1972, where he founded the Photographic Studies program.

In the late ’90s he retired to live in the Arizona outback, then moved to California before heading to Costa Rica. Much of this was due to a medical condition that made it hard for him to be comfortable in certain climate conditions.

By anyone’s lights Bill qualified as an odd duck. He told me once that he’d spent some years as an evangelical street preacher in London and elsewhere in the UK before his conversion to advocate of photography. During his time in the southwest he became a survivalist, fully prepared for the ravening hordes to sweep out of the cities and ravage the land. I found him always humorful and energetic, never apocalyptic, though he did tend toward the jeremiad as a literary form. He was ever gracious and gentlemanly — “old school,” as we say nowadays.

At the same time, he was an extremely thorough and scrupulous historian who believed in close attention to original sources, which he both taught and practiced. Bill had read every issue of every 19th-century English-language photo journal, and every other printed source about photography on which he could lay his hands. He maintained extensive clippings files on individual photographers, processes, historical events, and other photo-related topics. (These now reside in his archive at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson.)

"A. D. Coleman, Phoenix, 1991," by Bill Jay

"A. D. Coleman, Phoenix, 1991," by Bill Jay

Bill also wrote prodigiously; I remember him saying, casually in conversation, that he had drawers full of unpublished essays, in addition to his extensive published output and substantial correspondence. Over the past decade or so he published most extensively in the British magazine Ag and the U.S. journal LensWork. In 2008 he received the ICP Infinity Award for Writing on Photography, an honor he surely earned.

Bill and I didn’t always see eye to eye on the issues of the day, but we shared a commitment to clarity of expression, an aversion to jargon, and a disdain for cant. Beyond that, we simply liked each other, for those inexplicable reasons that make for friendship. I invited Bill to write the introduction to my 1995 book Critical Focus, and he responded with an extremely supportive appreciation.

We used to bump into each other regularly at the annual conferences of the Society for Photographic Education and elsewhere on the circuit. Once he left his teaching job we saw less of each other, but kept in touch by phone and email. Between his relocations after Arizona and my own travels (especially to China), we’d lost track of each other over the past few years. So it was a shock to learn, from a colleague, of his passing. Good to know, from what I see online, that his death has not gone unmarked or unmourned, and that people continue to acknowledge and celebrate his achievements and contributions.

— A. D. Coleman

(You’ll find an obit for Bill by Mary Virginia Swanson here. It’s full of useful links to online material by and about Bill. Bill Jay On Photography, the website that he began to publish when he got to California, contains a generously large selection of his texts and images.)

© Copyright 2009 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services, imageworld AT nearbycafe DOT com.

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