British photographic history

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An influential figure in the study of photographic history during the late 1960s and 1970s Bill Jay died on 10 May 2009. Jay originally worked in Britain before moving to the United States in the mid-1970s. He was a regular writer on photographic history and was responsible for bringing to a wider audience a number of important early photographers including Sir Benjamin Stone, Frances Frith and Paul Martin.

Born in Maidenhead in 1940 Jay received a grammar school education and spent two years at the Berkshire College of Art. He joined a consumer photographic magazine and worked for a number of others before becoming the first Editor/Director of Creative Camera and Album magazines. The latter achieved an international reputation as one of the best photographic magazines then available. During this time, he earned a living as a picture editor of a large circulation news/feature magazine and as the European manager of an international picture agency. Jay was the first Director of Photography at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and gave over 400 lectures to art schools, camera clubs, universities and wrote hundreds of articles for his own and other photographic journals as part of a one-man crusade to, in his own words, 'instill some life into the British photographic community'.

In his own view his crusade met with a limited response and in 1972 he left Britain to study photography at the University of New Mexico with Beaumont Newhall and Van Deren Coke. He was awarded a MA in 1974 and a MFA in 1976 - his dissertation topic was on the nineteenth century British photographic Francis Bedford. In 1974 he founded the program of photographic studies at Arizona State University, where he taught history and criticism classes for twenty-five years becoming Professor of Art History. For four years he was a Board member of the Society for Photographic Education.

Bill Jay published over 400 articles and was the author of more than twenty books on the history and criticsm of photography and he also contributed essays to monographs by well-known photographers, such as Jerry Uelsmann, Bill Brandt, Michael Kenna, and Bruce Barnbaum.

His own photographs were widely published and exhibited, including a one-person show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His previous monograph, Photographers Photographed, included a selection of the thousands of portraits he has taken of prominent individuals if the medium of photography, a database of which is located at the Center of Creative Photography, which also houses his research archives.

After retiring from Arizona State University in the late-1990s Jay moved from Mesa, Arizona to Mission Beach near San Diego and very recently to his adopted hometown of Samara on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. His legacy is his extensive writings and his archive which is housed at the Center for Creative Photography and consists of 177 linear feet of 'papers, writings, research files, teaching materials, audiovisual and photographic materials, books, periodicals, and computerized database of photographer and educator Bill Jay.'


Some of the information for this obituary appeared on Bill Jays own website. Additional recent biographical information can be found here.

Some of his publications include:

Views on Nudes.
Focal Press Ltd., London, 1972. A history of the nude as a subject for photographers, from 1840-1970. Second edition: 1980.
Customs and Faces: Sir Benjamin Stone 1818-1914.
Academy, Editions, London; St. Martin's Press, New York, 1972.
Victorian Cameraman: Francis Frith's Views of Rural England 1850-1898.
David and Charles, Devon, England, 1973.
Victorian Candid Camera: Paul Martin 1864-1944.
David and Charles, Devon, England, 1973.
Essays and Photographs: Robert Demachy 1859-1936.
Academy Editions, London: St. Martin's Press, New York, 1974.
Models, Messages, Manipulations.
Unique, handmade book of words and pictures. Acquired by Art Museum, University of New Mexico for permanent collection, 1976.
Negative/ Positive: A Philosophy of Photography.
Klendall/Hunt Publishing Company, Second edition: 1982. Reprinted 1989 for Montana State University.
Light Verse on Victorian Photography.
Limner Press, Arizona, 1981. Anthology of poetry from the 19th century press. Limited Edition: 500 copies, numbered and signed.
Route 60 (with James Hajicek).
Limited edition, hand-printed, leather bound livre-de-luxe, containing tipped-in original photographs. Friends of Photography at ASU, 1981, through private donation.
Series of essays in British Journal of Photography, later collated into Cyanide and Spirits.
1980s.
Photographers Photographed. A selection of my personal portraits in monograph form.
Peregrine Smith, Utah, 1983.
Bernard Shaw: On Photography (with Margaret Moore).
The first comprehensive collection of critical essays and images by Shaw. Peregrine Smith, Utah, 1989.
Occam's Razor: an Outside-In View of Contemporary Photography. Anthology of essays on 20th century issues.
Nazraeli Press, Munich, Germany, 1992.
The Photographers: Volume 1. Portfolio of photographic portraits and written profiles. Images printed in collotype by James Hajicek.
Limited edition, numbered and signed. Nazraeli Press, Munich, Germany, 1992.
U.S. Photo Guide (with Aimee Linhoff). Resource index to over 2,000 institutions, workshops, museums, galleries, periodicals, individuals etc. in academic/fine-art photography.
Nazraeli Press, Munich, Germany,1993.
Some Rollicking Bull: Light Verse, and worse, on Victorian photography. Anthology of ballads, sonnets, odes and songs as well as humorous, strange and odd items from the pages of 19 century photographic periodicals.
Nazraeli Press, Munich, Germany,1994.
On Being a Photographer: A Practical Guide [with David Hurn - Magnum Photos].
LensWork Publishing, 1997. And subsequent editions.
On Looking at Photographs: A Practical Guide [with David Hurn - Magnum Photos].
LensWork Publishing, 2000.
Cyanide and Spirits: an Inside-Out View of Early Photography. Anthology of essays on 19th century issues. Nazraeli Press, Munich, Germany, 1991.
61 Pimlico: the Secret Journal of Henry Hayler.
Nazraeli Press, Munich, Germany, 1998. Movie option rights acquired by Coppos Films, Los Angeles.
Sun in the Blood of the Cat. An anthology of essays on 19th and 20th century photography.
Nazraeli Press, 2001.
Bill Brandt -One Picture Book No. 9. Limited edition,
Nazraeli Press, 2002.
Men Like Me. Portraits of homeless men in a small California seaside town.
Nazraeli Press, 2005.
Snapshots. Photographs of amateur photographers with their cameras at picture places in Britain, Europe, USA and other sites.
Bill Jay's Album, Volume1. A collection of portraits of photographers, with extended commentaries, reminiscences...

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Comment by Stephen Bottomore on May 14, 2009 at 16:57
Thanks for this nice and well deserved tribute. Bill Jay was one of the great writers on photography and the visual arts. Speaking for myself, I found his work a huge inspiration when I happened to run across articles he wrote in the 'British Journal of Photography' in the '80s. While most photographic historians at that time wrote (and still write) about individual photographers, Jay was different in that he often dealt with themes and issues, based on his wide reading of 19th century photographic journals. His approach, which I then tried to apply in my own field of early cinema history, was to tell his readers about the views, theories and opinions of photographic commentators and experts of those earlier times. And what's more Jay did this in an accessible, simple, and lucid manner. I haven't written many fan letters in my life, but Mr Jay received one from this (then young) film historian, which he was kind enough to acknowledge. Some of his great articles are collected in his book, 'Cyanide and Spirits', and many others are on his site: http://www.billjayonphotography.com/writings.html.

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