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Do Not Bend – The Photographic Life of Bill Jay

Who is Bill Jay? Some of you may know of the name, but he is probably one of the most unappreciated writers on photography.
I, for one, knew very little about him until this year. Anyone who has been tutored by me over the years has probably had the book, On Being A Photographer by Bill Jay and David Hurn recommended to them. Despite being the co-author of this much read title, I had never really comprehended who Jay was. David Hurn was the more well-known of the two authors, from being a Magnum photographer and his involvement with photographic teaching in the UK.
On Being a Photographer has been one of my go-to default recommendations to students, and a book that I have read many times over the years. For a long time, I gave David Hurn almost full credit for the book and had never appreciated the importance of the involvement of Bill Jay.
In March of this year, I was at the National Museum Cardiff and I spotted David Hurn in the photography gallery. Plucking up the courage to go and speak to him, I thanked him for writing On Being a Photographer and explained the impact it had on me both as a photographer and a teacher. He politely accepted my praise and then went to elucidate on his collaboration with Bill Jay, and how it was in fact Bill who should take the credit for the book.
He then took me over to a cabinet which had a selection of drawings/wood cuts by Bill Jay and explained how much he adored them and Bill Jay’s witty sense of cutting to the chase when writing about photography.

Image by Andrea Norrington

In the case was the following caption written by David Hurn:

“I met Bill Jay in the late ‘60s. He edited Creative Camera magazine and later Album. What Bill managed to do was to start introducing another way of looking at pictures other than just being content in a magazine. They were the same pictures but he was simply saying “there is another way of looking at them.” I think that helped to develop a whole new way of shooting pictures, where photographers were more conscious of the aesthetic side of the photograph whilst not losing the content quality of the picture. Bill was the prime mover for that shift, and out of this movement people like Sue Davies set up The Photographers’ Gallery”

A month or so later, one of the photography twitter accounts I follow was promoting a film screening. The film was titled Do Not Bend – The Photographic Life of Bill Jay. Intrigued I clicked the link and read about the film.

Image by Grant Scott

On Tuesday 8 May I found myself at The Frontline Club in London for a screening of Do Not Bend.
The film is a joy to watch, and fulfils the requirement of being entertaining, informative and educating. There is wonderful use made of archive footage of Bill Jay talking and lecturing. His delivery is infectious, and you cannot help but be swept along for his enthusiasm for all things photographic.
Without wanting to give too much away, the film demonstrates the questioning approach that Bill Jay took to photography. His influence was felt on photographers such as Martin Parr and Paul Hill, who have then gone on to influence many other photographers.
Paul Hill being interviewed
Image by Tim Pellatt

Alongside the film, there is an interesting backstory to the making . Grant Scott, one of the directors of the film has a background in art direction and magazine editing. In recent years he has moved to photography teaching and writing about photography. Unfamiliar with who Bill Jay was, it was a chance remark on how he wrote like Bill Jay that started his research. Intrigued by this, Scott followed up the reference and from that point an obsession developed. The resulting film was produced in partnership with Tim Pellatt.
Using a combination of interviews with people who knew Bill from his earliest days involved with photographers in London, to his final years teaching in the USA, plus conversations with family, a narrative of his life is established. By using archive footage and recordings of Jay talking, the directors have been able to use Jay’s own words to narrate the story of his life.
From the outset the film had no structure and each interview led to further interviews which progressed the story further. No one person had a complete picture of Jay’s life and so the film is a piecing together of many elements. By using a technique more akin to planning a publication, Scott was able to use his skill from planning magazines to sequence the footage. The resulting film is a credit to this technique and the skills of the directors to create a final piece that has fluidity to the narrative.
Image by Grant Scott

There is further screening of the film in Scotland in September this year. If you are able to attend do go. At the end of each screening there is a Q&A with Grant and Tim and this is a great opportunity to ask questions and find out more about how the film was made.
It is eventually planned for the film to be made available via streaming services.
Image by Michael Pritchard

For more information on the film and details of further screenings this year:
To read more of Grant Scott’s writing on photography:
For an interview with Grant Scott (the film is discussed about half way into the interview):
With kind thanks to the photographers for permission to use images.

Posted by author: Andrea Norrington
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2 thoughts on “Do Not Bend – The Photographic Life of Bill Jay

  • Perhaps the best way into Bill Jay’s considerate of photography is via “EndNotes” which I convinced Brooks Jensen to publish on Kindle, and I think still available and highly recommended. And I quote:
    “I sympathize with Jacques Seguela. He said: “Please, don’t tell my mother I work in an advertising agency — she thinks I play piano in a whorehouse.” Photography also elicited shame and scorn when I started my career. At my grammar school graduation ceremony, the headmaster intoned the names of the boys and their laudable future careers — doctor, missionary, scientist, etc. When he announced my intent to study photography at art college, the whole school assembly burst out laughing. Old habits and attitudes die hard, as do the prejudices of the uninformed. Today, of course, I am much more likely to admit to my true profession but I still half expect a hoot of derision or a sneer of superiority from inhabitants of the upper reaches of the social ladder. So the quest for a new title for “photographer” is intriguing, as I have mentioned in previous columns. Among my favorites are “visual anthropologist,“ “lenticular aesthetician,” and “lumenist.” Now I can add a new one to my list. This week I was introduced to an “arteologist.” Nicely done.”
    Jay, Bill; Jensen, Brooks. LensWork #83 (The Bill Jay’s Best of EndNotes issue) (Kindle Locations 308-317). LensWork Publishing. Kindle Edition.

    • Thanks John – I love that story you have quoted – spoiler alert – it makes it into the film. I’ll check out the EndNotes. I dug out a copy of ‘Occam’s Razor’ which I rereading.
      A colleague has lent me ‘Sun in the blood of the cat’ which has the best explanation for a book name ever. I’ll let Bill Jay in his own words explain …”I disavow any responsibility for this volume’s title and solely blame the computer. I dictated the working title “Something Photographic’ and the voice-activated software typed “Sun in the blood of a cat.” The contents, therefore, are not about feline slaughter in a tropical climate (sorry) but about a wide range of issues in photography, past and present.”

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