Magazine Memoirs – Bill Jay

The late Bill Jay was the first editor of Creative Camera and steered its transition from ‘Camera Owner’ to the magazine celebrated here.
He was a prolific writer and an accomplished photographer whose work is covered extensively on his own web site – well worth visiting.
This article was written for the conference, “What Happened Here?: Photography in Britain since 1968”, at the National Media Museum, Bradford, England, 14 October 2004. Also published (in a slightly revised form) in Ag Magazine, Issues 51 and 52, 2008. It is broken into 10 pages due to its length.

Bill Jay (front) and David Hurn in New Zealand, 1998. Photographer unknown.

The conference organizers have given me a specific brief, which I will do my best to fulfill: “We would like you to map important developments in photography from 1968 within the magazine and publishing world…and most specifically your role within Creative Camera.”

The latter half of this charge necessitates that this essay will be in the nature of a memoir.

But, as any historian will assert, the least useful sources for objective information are the participants in an event. So I am hesitant to assert that this will constitute The Truth about the early years of Creative Camera and what it was like to edit the magazine at the beginning of its life. Facts become warped by the passage of time; objectivity becomes swamped with subjective emotions; like images in a family album, memory is selective and emphasizes the positive.

I hope this will not be seen as an exercise in nostalgia because along with the heady excitements and occasional satisfactions came a sobering dollop of embarrassments, strategic errors, and awkward failures. I was young, inexperienced and naive and passionate about photography. It was like being a teenager, head over heels in love with a girl whom everyone else considered a klutz. I was quick to rush to the defense of every, even imagined, slight to her honor. And who has not made a fool of himself in such circumstances? Photography was my first love. I could not understand why everyone else did not share my passion, let alone ignore her or, worse still, disparage her virtues.

It is difficult to impart a sense of this mixture of heady excitement and embarrassing righteousness without saying a few words about the state of the photography world in Britain during the mid-1960s, for those who have come to photographic maturity in a totally different environment, where photography is now a rich, diverse, respected and supported medium. ‘Twas not always so…

To set the scene, back in the mid-1960s there was not a single gallery in the whole of Britain regularly showing serious, non-commercial photography, not one; if you wanted to see original prints by contemporary photographers, the only way to do so was to knock on the door of the photographer, and ask; there was not a single museum in the whole of Britain which collected photographs as photographs, other than as documents of fashion, architecture, or whatever; no museum purchased personal prints (as art, if you like) by contemporary photographers; The Institute of Contemporary Arts had not exhibited a single show of photography, as far as I am aware; there was not a single agency, organization, council or company which provided grants to photographers for the pursuit of excellence in picture making; the Arts Council of Great Britain would not even consider applications from photographers for several years; there was not a single photographic magazine in Britain which emphasized non-commercial, non-how-to-do-it, portfolios of images by committed photographers; photography as “art” elicited snickers of embarrassment if not downright incredulity; schools of photography which included any aspect of the personal approach to picture-making as a part of its regular curriculum were rare (Guildford School of Art was an exception, especially when under the iconoclastic leadership of Ifor Thomas, an educator way ahead of his time); there were no workshops where young photographers could learn from accepted fine photographers; there were precious few lectures by famous photographers – I cannot remember a single one during the first year of Creative Camera’s production; there was no market at all for the sale of original prints to collectors; the notion of paying even £20 for a photograph, even by a well-known photographer, was considered a ludicrous idea.

That’s the bad news: the institutional foundations of photography in Britain were inert, inept and apathetic.

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