Magazine Memoirs – Bill Jay

Now that the floodgates of memory have been opened, events cascade into my consciousness with ever increasing speed and force. Now, a glance through the pages of Album releases memories of so many people and their generosities that it would need a book to give them full credit. But what is evident is that there was so much to do and a finite amount of time and money that my resources were stretched way past breaking point.

By the tenth issue of Album it was very evident that we were sinking financially. If we were going to have any hope of breaking even, then drastic steps would have to betaken. The time between issues was increased (even though Album was a monthly) in order to allow more new subscriptions to cover our printing bills; Aidan Ellis was asked to leave at this time, which saved us money but there were growing rifts between us leading up to this decision – like Colin Osman, Aidan wanted more editorial input, and I refused to give it to him; and we had to abandon our basement in order to save rent and utilities. Album was homeless.

As the old saying goes: When the student is ready, the master will appear. The “master,” in this case, was David Hurn, who had been a quiet, unassuming force of encouragement to me for several years, as I have already mentioned. Thereafter he was my chief mentor, my most sincere critic and the biggest single influence in my photographic life.

His spacious flat at 4 Porchester Court, Porchester Gardens, London W2, was already a mecca for itinerant photographers of international stature. Learning that Album was homeless, he said, in his nonchalant way, “why don’t you move in?” So I did. Even though my presence – not to mention the constant ringing of the door bell by potential contributors, the endless cups of tea, the tying up of the telephone, the piles of prints and packing, the space commandeered for layouts, and the general hubbub -must have caused immense inconveniences in someone’s home, David, never once, gave me the feeling that I was other than wholly welcome. And I will never forget the conversations and print-sharing among David, Patrick Ward, Don McCullin, Ian Berry, Elliott Erwitt, Charles Harbutt, Leonard Freed or whoever happened to be there. They are cherished moments in my life.

Financially, they were the worst of times. I went bankrupt twice and never gave it more than casual thought. I only mention it because of one memory. The bailiff walked into my home to tag the furniture when he glanced at the wall and said, “That’s by Bill Brandt.” He was a fan of Album! I had fainting attacks and excruciating headaches from lack of food (but either David or Patrick Ward often came to the rescue with a great dinner at the Bistingo restaurant around the corner). My marriage was a shambles. Ah, but if I could do it all over again, I would. And David Hurn is still my closest friend.

Two other individuals entered my life through the doors of Porchester Court, both ofwhom play meaningful roles in my life. Josef Koudelka had just escaped from Czechoslovakia with the KGB hot on his heels. He needed a “sanctuary” while his visa was being approved. It seemed inevitable and appropriate that he would end up in David’s flat, sleeping on the floor (by choice) and that a morning ritual in an Album day was stepping over Josef, and negotiating a minefield of dog poop from David’s Weimeraner puppy, in order to reach the desk. Josef and I still keep in touch and now and again he visits for a few days of camaraderie.

I had met William Jenkins while preparing the special issue of Album at the George Eastman House, where he was curator of 20th century photography. He is best known for curating one of the most influential photographic exhibitions of all time, “New Topographics” (1975). A few years earlier he took a year’s leave of absence to join me at Album, although he arrived in the last desperate months. Strangely, we ended up as colleagues at the same university in Arizona where we taught together for 20-plus years.

Paradoxically, Album was gaining an increasing reputation as our finances were collapsing. We received a call from a Professor of Journalism at a major American university; he was taking his class on a summer tour of “Great European Magazines.” Album was to be included. Fine, we said, come on over. The class looked a bit nonplussed when we pointed to the end of David’s office. “That’s Album,” we said. “Where’s the layout department?,” they asked. “Well,” we said, “we place this sheet of plywood over the pocket billiard table.” When they asked who was the Editor, Picture Editor, Art Editor, typographer, publications manager, writers… David kept pointing atme with increasing speed, and increasing hilarity. I do not think the class was very impressed with our operation, but we got a big kick out of their visit.

David and I have told this story, to each other and to others, many times over the intervening 20 years. But as I relive it in my mind, in the context of this article, one aspect of it has suddenly occurred to me. Our story has never presumed that Album was a “great” magazine and I never thought of it in those terms; our story, if it had a point at all, was those Americans’ presumption that nothing could be attained without vast resources and loads of money and impressive locations.

It was the same sense of unreality when The New York Times (20 September 1970)published a piece about Album calling me a “revolutionary,” and when others termed our efforts a “crusade” which I was waging with “missionary zeal.” These comments and epithets were amusing at the time but they were not taken seriously. It is difficult to explain what I mean. I can honestly say that at the time I did not feel what we were doing was so important. I was doing it all because that is what I wanted to do …it was what I believed in. The praise and validations of others were merely irrelevant.

The significance of this New York Times puff-piece, however, is that a lot had changed in a few years. The interest in and support for photography in Britain was being noticed, even in America. The tide was turning.

By the twelfth issue of Album we had cut our expenses to the bone, and new subscriptions were picking up. It began to look as if we might survive, just. We had hope again.

Then the axe fell. In the Spring of 1971, Britain was in an economic slump. Belts were being tightened everywhere – including at our printers. Balding and Mansell were not only handling all our income but had given us a three-month grace period in our bills. In essence we owed them for the printing costs on three issues. During the financial squeeze they had no choice but to take full payment. It wiped us out.

I kept busy with organizing lectures and exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts(although I was soon thrown out for dominating the place with photography); arranging for the saving of the Frith archives; part-time teaching at several colleges, and being thrown out of one for being a “subversive” influence; and selling 19th century prints to American collections to make ends meet. But with Album gone, the hotspot around which my life revolved was also missing. And there was no sense of achievement as compensation. “The explosion of photography in Britain,” which I had predicted in the first issue, would come soon, through the efforts of people like Sue Davies (at The Photographer’s Gallery), Paul Hill (and his workshops at The Photographers’ Place),Barry Lane (at the Arts Council of Great Britain and later at the RPS), David Hurn (at the School of Documentary Photography in Newport), and Martin Parr (in his championing

of a new generation of British photographers) – but without Album or me. Perhaps we had encouraged, cajoled, and enthused a key group of individuals who would take up the cause, but, at the time, these seeds had not germinated and, therefore, were not evident.

In this despondent mood, I was visited by Van Deren Coke on one of his regular trips to England. He and Beaumont Newhall were already strong role models for me and, as fate would have it, were now teaching together at the University of New Mexico, which almost instantly became the most prestigious academic institution in the world for the study of the history and practice of photography. In the garden of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a pub in Cookham where I was living, Van casually suggested that I “Come to New Mexico. Sit in on our lectures, find out what’s happening in the USA. Recharge your batteries, and then you can come back here and begin again.” “Fine,” I said, “you get me in and I’ll come,” then promptly forgot about it.

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