Months later I received a telegram from Van telling me that I had been accepted (it was not until much later that I realized just how much political clout he had exerted on my behalf) and that I had to come immediately in order to enroll in the coming semester. Is that what I wanted? I had no idea, so in the spirit of the 60s I cast an I Ching. I forget the actual hexagram but it said something like: you have reached a crossroad in your life; it does not matter which path you take as long as the other path is cut off completely. Well, if it doesn’t matter, I thought, then I might as well go. Within a month, in August1972, I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, about to begin one of the most liberating,s atisfying periods of my life. It would be only for two years at the most, I thought.
While Beaumont disciplined me in the medium’s history, Van directed not only my studies but also my attitudes to art, professionalism and life; he became my father-figure in photography. He still is, after more than 30 years.*
No sooner had I arrived on campus than Beaumont Newhall took me aside and said: “Come with me. There’s something I want to show you.” He led me through the Art Library into the Rare Book Room where only precious, non-circulating books and periodicals were stored. “There,” he pointed. To my astonishment a full set of Album was on the shelf. “I knew it was important, and was not likely to last, as soon as I saw it,” said Beaumont, “so I wanted to make sure that we always had a full set of pristine copies.” He wrote that it was the finest photographic journal of the past 50 years. I was astonished that someone of Newhall’s eminence would so value something that I had put together. It was my first inkling that maybe Album did have a value to the medium. And then Beaumont, with characteristic empathy and insight, offered an even more consoling thought: “I know you are upset at its folding, but magazines, like living entities, have allotted life spans – a species might live a day or a week or 100 years but it dies when its lifework is complete. Album had a short life but maybe it had accomplished what it was meant to do and its death was natural and perhaps inevitable. You cannot judge a magazine’s success by its duration.” Thank you, Beaumont, oh how I needed to hear those words at that moment.
And I think of them at odd moments, such as when I browse through a book shop or gallery and discover an old single copy of Album with a price sticker of $100-plus. And to think that we could not sell enough subscriptions – 12 issues for $20 – to keep it alive. And whatever happened to those piles of unsold, unwanted copies stacked under the billiard table. . . ?
Sometime in 1971, when it was becoming increasingly evident that Album was in dire financial straits, I decided to lash out a few guineas for a consultation with a Management Counselor, someone who specialized in refloating shipwrecked companies. It could not hurt. Or so I thought. In fact, the experience has troubled me ever since.
He browsed through a few copies of the magazine. “So what’s the point of all…this?”, he said, as he pushed the copies back at me.
I began to talk about the state of photography in England, how I was fighting to gain respect for an abused medium, why I cared about young photographers and the need to nurture their talent, what I perceived as an opportunity, through the pages of the magazine, to present ideas, inspiration, historical context, social relevancy, image integrity…
He listened with growing impatience. “Bullshit!” he said. “Let’s start again. You are in this thing for one of three reasons: fame, money or power, just like everyone else. Now you tell me which one you want, and I will tell you how to get it. But don’t kid yourself with ideological/ethical crap. And don’t waste my time. Come back when you have decided what you want.”
I never did go back. I still would not know what to tell him. I still believe in my original motives, even though I would express myself in different words. At the root of my professional life has been my continued delight in photography’s ability to nourish all aspects of existence. I am sure I would still exasperate the poor man if he asked me the same question today.
And I have often daydreamed of the “alternate existence” that would have been my life if Album had survived and I had stayed in Britain to witness, and hopefully take part in, the “explosion of photography” which I had predicted a few years earlier but was not to experience…
This memoir was based on two previously published articles: “Back to the Future” written for the 20th anniversary issue of Creative Camera in 1986, and a cover feature, “Bill Jay’s Little Magazine” published in The History of Photography journal in the Spring of 1993.
My contributions to this conference are dedicated to the memory of Van Deren Coke. He died on 11 July2004 during my writing of this essay.