Photography in America – Bill Jay, 1980

This article is the text of the lecture delivered by the late Bill Jay on 3 July 1980, at the Newport Art Gallery, Newport, Gwent, under the aegis of the Documentary Photography Course at Gwent College of Higher Education, during a short visit to the UK. It is reproduced from The British Journal of Photography where it appeared in July 1980.
Jay was then Associate Professor of Art History at Arizona State University and, before leaving the UK for the USA in 1972, he was a significant catalyst in the development of the resurgence of photographic fine art and the self-expressionist movement at the beginning of the ’70s. He was, for a time, the editor of Camera Owner magazine and engineered its transformation into Creative Camera during his tenure.

The article does not appear in Jay’s extensive online catalogue of articles and so has been added here.

An American myth

There is a scene in an otherwise forgettable American movie which has lodged in my mind and become a potent metaphor for art photography in the USA.

The screen is filled with the earnestly bobbing, mane-flying necks of a pair of horses in their traces and seen from above; the camera gradually pulls back until a pioneer family emerges, sitting on the seat of the covered wagon; the man is whipping the straining horses with frenzied zeal; the camera continues to pull back (it is obviously in a helicopter), slowly but surely, until the screen includes a score of wagons, hurtling across a plain, each driver leaning forward, urging his horses to maximum speed; the viewpoint continues to rise, at an accelerating rate, until the bird’s-eye view encompasses an awesome panorama of virgin wilderness, with the tiniest dots, trailing dust plumes, representing the wagons racing towards free land, freedom – and a new life.

I do not think it is any exaggeration to say that this is the American myth that art photographers select for themselves. They see themselves as pioneers, radical individualists, racing towards new freedoms, defending with the might of right their chosen paths of photography against ‘outsiders’ of all persuasions.

This is no idle analogy. The myth of the West permeates the whole fabric of the American culture. This is not the place to deal with the fact, the implications of which are crucial to any understanding of the American way of life. It has been endlessly investigated by sociologists, anthropologists, art historians, politicians, writers and pundits of every persuasion. It is enough to assert that the notion of single-minded individualists, as epitomised by the Western heroes, is suffused within the culture ancl is, in turn, manifested in all the arts, including photography. I am not talking about its manifestation in the appearance of imagery but in the state of mind of the individual, whether poet, painter or photographer. The artist as explorer/hero is real.

England has no such singularly potent myth in its recent past. Robin Hood, Arthur and his knights, Drake and his piratical raids have no connection with contemporary reality; the American cowboy still exerts a major influence on values and life-attitudes today by virtue of his contemporaneity.

I do not want to belabour this point but it is crucial to an understanding of American cultural values. In addition I have a strong feeling that European photographers have appropriated the myth of the western hero and share its ideals with the Americans. Photography on that side of the Atlantic seems so wide-open in its possibilities, so daring in its enterprises, so free in its potentials, and so heroic in its achievements. And it is true that a good deal of photographic activity in America has reached a status and public acceptance that is the envy of photographers in other countries. The achievements, and there have been many, have been hard-won by committed individuals in the Western mould.

But the costs have been high.

It is not the purpose of this talk to re-emphasise the achievements of American photography. These are readily apparent — the extraordinary interest in photography at practically every high- school, college and university campus across the USA. (As a small example, at the university where I teach, there are 300 students who are ‘majoring’ in photography, there are over 90 darkrooms on campus, and my own history of photography survey class enrolls 250 students (Arizona State University is not the largest teaching establishment in photography by any means.) I could also list the proliferation of art galleries and museums exhibiting and selling photographs, the plethora of new books about the medium published each month, the social status of photographers (epitomised by Ansel Adams’ portrait on the cover of Time magazine), the extraordinary profusion of styles, processes, and techniques in photography, the appropriation of photography by scholars in other media (epitomised by the staggering popularity of Susan Sontag’s book On Photography).The incredible diversity of attitudes to photography within the medium itself – et al. These are known, and appreciated.

What is not clear is that the real attainments have also created equally real problems and have led to compromises, excesses, lost goals, mental culs-de-sac, an overwhelming amount of banality, a denial of the medium itself, and a spiritual (yes, spiritual) malaise which permeates the medium.

It is the purpose of this talk to outline e few of the problems, provide a few examples of how they are manifested in the photographs and their social setting, and offer positive solutions to some of them. Because – make no mistake about it – where America has been, Britain is following. I do believe that Britain can have the attainments of the American photographers without the chaos and high casualties; it can have the social rewards without destroying the spirit of photography.

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