Bill Jay – ‘Occam’s Razor’

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Bill Jay (1940-2009) is a favourite writer, partly because of his acute insight into photographers (as opposed to photography), but mainly because of his love of making things clear and writing in plain English.

I am referring here to Occam’s Razor: An outside-in-view of Contemporary Photographer (1992). It ought to be on every photographer’s reading list, especially as it is a fun read. I took it on holiday, recently, and re-read it.

… all good photographers have a deep commitment to, and involvement with, their subjects, and through photography they are communicating their understanding and passion to others.’ (pg 18)

… a body of work by a photographer begins to reflect back to the viewer the author’s relationship not only to the subject but also to a unique life-attitude.’ (pg 19)

Formal education (in photography) has a lot to answer for. We have legitimized, sanitized, academized the medium until we are left with issues not substance, critical stances not action .. ‘ (pg 20)

Grant Scott, of the United Nations of Photography, wrote about Jay on the premiere of a movie about his life (2018 – Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay).

‘Evangelical in his zeal in sharing his passion for the medium and a mercurial force of energy when it came to his teaching and lecturing, he ignited the fire beneath British photography in 1968 with his editorship of Creative Camera magazine and fanned its flames through his self-created Album magazine’.

Jay was, by all accounts, ‘as interested in photographers as he was in photography‘ (Hopkinson, Guardian, 2009).

Where did the title come from? William of Ockham was a Franciscan friar in the 14th century. He wrote the lex parsimoniae, or ‘the law of briefness’. In Latin:

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. Translated: More things should not be used than are necessary.

Jay addresses young photographers, to whom he suggests that “each photograph you take is like a pebble dropped into the pond of consciousness, its never-ending ripples lapping upon everything.” (pg 11).

The book is illustrated with Jay’s beautiful montages of Victorian wood engravings.

Occam’s Razor includes disparate yet always interesting essays, although it can sometimes be a bit superficial (in a couple of the interviews). For example, the interview with Diane Arbus. She was very reluctant to speak, though by answering an odd question Jay gets her to open up and relax. She talks about how long she pondered about whether any given image was worth putting on public show, although how she decided wasn’t made clear.

The most vivid images from the essay are, however, that Jay notes Arbus as wearing ‘ … a leather miniskirt. It was quite sexy …’ (pg 54), and the foul tasting jelly Arbus asked Jay to try to eat. Both are typical of his interest in photographers as people, though frankly add little to photographic enlightenment.

On the other hand, Jay’s critique of criticism is withering. In the essay Madonna Made Me Do It, he notes:

‘Copy down a paragraph (any one will do) from a current critical theorist. Memorize it. Then, in front of the mirror, practice a halting, stumbling delivery with screwed-up face until you can recite it as if ther words were being laboriously dredged up from deep in your psyche with gut-wrenching sincerity’. (pg 156)

Perhaps more helpfully, Jay notes that considering the photographer, the work itself, its place in photography’s history, its context in the prevailing culture and so forth are important to any critique.

And here is a tasty quote, from his conversation with Robert Capa:

Jay: Books and movies are always depicting photojournalists as hustlers and voyeurs. Is that fair?

Capa: No, of course not. it is typical liberal namely-pamby understatement. Photographers are also paranoid, aggressive and utterly selfish. Like Sontag said; all photographers are sublimated rapists and murderers. (pg 117)

The essay entitled ‘Threshold – The Disturbing Image‘ is an important contribution to the conversation around what is and is not acceptable to photograph and exhibit.

Jay distinguishes between disturbing, meaning pushing a viewer to the ‘limit of emotional acceptance‘ (pg 33). And disturbing, in the sense that ‘the image … rocks the status quo‘. He notes that:

‘… the closer we can approach a survival-threatening situation [embracing emotional disturbance], even vicariously through an image … the more we feel alive’. (pg 35)


‘Educated, comparatively affluent, middle-class Americans have become so comfortable, thank God, in their ascendancy over hand-to-mouth survival that they are more easily disturbed and shocked by the raw crudity of life outside fortress USA, or even within it …’ (pg 37)

That is why bloated corpses floating in the Ganges disturb a Western audience, yet are commonplace sights on the river’s banks. Jay also notes that, whilst editor of Creative Camera, he received a furious letter from a woman upset by ‘Two Shells‘ by Edward Weston (1927).

The woman was offended by the images ‘sexual nature’ (pg 38). A personal disturbance.

Jay goes on to write about Robert Frank‘s Americans, which disturbed the status quo via its social commentary on a ‘hidden side’ of America.

His conclusions are clear and practical.

‘I have tried to indicate that disturbing images are inevitable – and that they are always healthy. Even those that fill us with disgust and abhorrence can indicate we care about moral values, that we are part of an upsurge in human consciousness. They act, paradoxically, as indicators of the state of our society’. (pg 43)

And Jay remains optimistic:

‘While images still have the capacity to disturb us, I have hopes for both the human race and the medium of photography’. (pg 43)

I also found his comments on the (still controversial) ‘Family of Man‘ exhibition very insightful. This was staged by Edward Steichen for MoMa in 1955. Critics noted it as being overly sugary, epitomising an idealised (America?) way of life, rather than truly getting into the multi cultural and diverse nature of humanity across the globe – including its pain and its problems. In essence, the exhibition suffered the challenges of all documentary photography, and highlighted the curation process as a constant battle. Over two million photographs were submitted from across the world.

‘During 1954, the two million photographs were edited down to 10,000 possibles, and finally cut to 503 images, representing 273 photographers (163 American) from 68 countries’. (pg 87)

Jay points out that everywhere that the exhibition was shown across the world, it got record audiences. It was shown at 69 venues in 37 countries, as well as numerous US cities. Jay takes the view that it was exactly what the public wanted, even if it did not meet the critic’s needs. In the context of the post-World War II years, a little hope and positiveness went a long way.

‘The Family of Man is a microcosm of all the issues which have haunted photography throughout its history. And that is why the exhibition is so unsettling to photographers. To ‘the man in the street’ these issues are irrelevant … perhaps Steichen was right. Perhaps his ‘devoted love and faith in man’ was not so naive after all. (pg 97)

Jay’s conversations with W. Eugene Smith were poignant and inspirational. Smith was suicidal, and crying out for help in long distance phone calls. In a January, 1970 letter to Jay, Smith writes:

‘If I could beat this depression – if I could fall in love – if at least someone [were] around to make me eat semi-healthfully – if I could get six months rest’. (pg 113)

Well, Smith met his future, Japanese wife Aileen shortly afterwards. From Wikipedia:

‘[They] lived in Minamata, both a fishing village and a “one company” industrial city in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan from 1971 to 1973. There they created a long-term photo-essay on Minamata disease, the effects of mercury poisoning caused by a Chisso factory discharging heavy metals into water sources around Minamata.

The essay was published in 1975 as ‘Minamata, Words and Photographs’ by W.E. Smith and A.M. Smith.

Its centrepiece photograph and one of his most famous works, ‘Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath’, taken in December 1971, and published a few months after the 1972 attack, drew worldwide attention to the effects of Minamata disease. The photograph depicts a mother cradling her severely deformed, naked daughter in a traditional Japanese bathing chamber. This has been withdrawn from circulation in accordance with the parents’ wishes’. 

In the process of creating Minamata, Smith was severely beaten up by company employees. But, he

‘… was unbowed. He was capable of further work of humanistic power and social relevancy’. (pg 114)

Smith finished his defining work, and died in 1978.

Ashley Rose wrote a great post on Bill Jay and David Hurn. Access here.


Cham, Jorge. 2009. Core Principles in Research. Available at: (accessed 2/9/2018).

Greenough, Sarah. 2009. Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans. Washington: National Gallery of Art/Steidl.

Jay, Bill. 1992. Occam’s Razor. Tucson: Nazraeli Press.

Hopkinson, Amanda. 2009. Bill Jay, Photographer & Writer. Obituary. Available at: (Accessed: 16/8/2018).

Scott, Grant. 2018. The Photographic Life of Bill Jay. Available at: (Accessed 2/9/2018).

Smith, W. Eugene. 2013. The Big Book. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Smith, W. Eugene & Smith, A.M. 1975. Minamata. New York: Alskog-Sensorium.

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