This type of presentation is hardly new to the art world -- and certainly not to Bill Jay himself, a much-celebrated photographic historian and expatriate Brit who started taking photographs of important artists like Mary Ellen Mark and Jerry Uselmann back in the 1960s and published a book bearing the same name as this exhibition in 1983. Nor is the conceit of handwritten text on photographic margins documenting behind-the-scenes information about the photo's subject. For example, Beat guru Allen Ginsberg in the 1990s produced an oft-exhibited photographic series of text on photos, starring himself, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs Jr. and Paul Bowles, taken by the infamous poet during the heyday of Beatdom in San Francisco's North Beach and its wildly hedonistic counterpart in Tangier, Morocco.
What sets this tried-and-true exhibition formula apart from the usual shot-and-jot production is the tenor and quality of Bill Jay's writing on the unapologetically grainy photos he took, à la Andy Warhol with fully automatic amateur 35mm cameras loaded with basic 400ASA black-and-white film. Each text has been written in response to the memories or thoughts elicited by a particular image at the time Jay prints it -- and no two copies of the same print will bear the same text.
"After I made the photographs, I would make the prints, then respond to the photograph immediately at that time," Jay says of his process. "But as I subsequently made new photographs, I'd respond afresh to them. So I don't have prepared scripts. If I reprinted a photograph taken 20 years ago, I'd respond to it now."
And watch out for the response. Bill Jay, who taught the history of photography at Arizona State University from 1974 to 1999, created graduate programs in photographic studies there and authored more than 15 books on the history and criticism of photography, minces no words when capturing his reaction to a particular artist. "The early pictures are very rude," the photographer/historian says of his older handwritten text.
Jay's written reminiscences remind one of the bitchy pronouncements of British fashion photographer Cecil Beaton. But instead of dishing on the Queen Mother, Katharine Hepburn and Liz Taylor, as Beaton does in his recently published personal diaries of the '70s and '80s, Jay takes on the Kings of Kodak, including Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Brett Weston and Lucien Clergue. Perhaps a tinge of the sardonic is something genetically encoded in British photographers and photographic historians, though Jay's lyrical texts can also elicit a sense of pathos about his subjects.
In essence, "Photographers Photographed" is a wittily condensed course on the history of photography of the latter half of the 20th century, delivered by someone who has personally lived that history and communed with the finest art photographers of that epoch. A shot of photographic master André Kertesz taken in 1968 in New York gives us insight into an artist whose work is known for its spare intimacy and genteel irony: "Andre Kertesz looked and talked like a banker; he was quiet, serious, precise, and organized -- just like his photos . . . he showed me the negatives of his distorted nudes series, which were in a wooden cupboard in his home. The images were being destroyed by fungi, but he gave me one of the prints anyway. Very sad."
Jay also describes his one-time run-in with Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo on a Mexico City street in 1986 with equal empathy: ". . . [He] seemed so tiny and fragile, a wispy body in oversize raincoat and flat 'at. He reminded me of a shy and wary bird. How different from the strength and assurance of his photographs." And, of Brett Weston, one of Edward Weston's sons, Jay writes: "Brett's work is meticulous and coldly formal, too designy' for my taste. I wish he had photographed more of his personal life. By all accounts, he was a legendary womanizer who led a bizarre if messy existence."
Forced to retire from teaching in 1999 at 63 because of a serious heart condition ("I was told I didn't have long to live and should prepay cremation"), Bill Jay continues to add to his collection of almost 2,500 photographs of well-known contemporary photographers. This collection has been edited down from 28,000 raw images, now housed at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. The indefatigable writer-photographer also aims his digital point-and-shoot at other, less high-profile targets in San Diego's Ocean Beach, where he now lives. "I got friendly with many of the beach bums there, the homeless people who sleep out. I've been doing extreme close-ups. I always give these guys prints of their own portraits," reports Jay. Recently, he met one of his subjects in an alley, who invited him to a little house where these street people congregated.
"When I walked in, there were half a dozen of these old guys there; they'd collected back all my prints and had put them on the wall with double-sided tape to give me an exhibition," Jay recalls. "It was very moving. I got more pride and satisfaction from what they had done for me there than if I had been given a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art."