Making Contact With the Past…

I have spent the last two years researching the life of Bill Jay for the film Bill was a writer, editor, lecturer and photographer and it is his photography that has proven to be the hardest aspect of his life to research and place into context. The reason for this is simple, Bill didn’t date his work. Despite a fanatically detailed approach to his own research and writing, he neglected to bring the same level of organisation to his photography.

When Bill died he donated his many filing cabinets of research and photographic material to the Centre of Creative Photography, University of Arizona, in Tucson but through discussions with his daughters I discovered that not all of his archive had been donated. They had retained eight large plastic storage containers filled with photography that they had never looked at, in fact no one had ever looked into these bins since they had removed them from their father’s house in Costa Rica after his death.

It was these blue, plastic bins that I spent a day delving into and through recently on a visit to Phoenix, Arizona. As hour after hour passed as I sat on a veranda with Bill’s daughters more and more discoveries were made. As I scanned contact sheet, after contact sheet, the past came to life as I was able to identify faces, places and events that revealed Bill’s eye on both his personal world and events of national interest. I knew that he had visited New York in 1968 with Tony Ray Jones and here was the proof not only of the visit but also were they went and who they met. I had guessed that he had been present at the 1968 Grosvenor Square riots alongside Tariq Ali and Vanessa Redgrave but now I knew he was there and that he was in the middle of the action. Now I could see how the photographers he had met and featured within the pages of Creative Camera magazine had influenced his own photography in both subject matter and composition.

I found boxes and boxes of colour transparencies documenting the desert and pueblos of New Mexico in the early 1970s. His time in England was resolutely black and white but the new world for Jay was all about colour. Not one of these framed slides was dated or captioned but the film stock and clothes of those featured clearly indicated a specific time frame for their capture.

I spent six hours working my way through the boxes, carefully documenting what I found of interest. The person whose life I had researched for over two years came alive to me through his own eyes. Rough, red and yellow chinagraph marks indicated his favourite frames as did red sticker dots, obviously added later as a second edit undertaken years later. I had made a physical contact with Bill and the past.

My intention had been to try and find a missing portfolio of images that Jay had famously shown to the photographer David Hurn in 1967, only to be met with the suggestion that perhaps Bill should consider writing about photography rather than creating photographs. A suggestion that went deep with Bill, resulting in a future view of his photography being nothing more than personal ‘snapshots’. I didn’t find the portfolio but I did find images that may well have been part of that particular holy grail.

Why am I sharing this experience with you? Well, you may have seen the film and find my continued search for the portfolio of interest, but what I think is most likely is that you as I do, find searching through another photographer’s contact sheets fascinating. The insight they give into a photographer’s ways of working and seeing provide a creative context that the finished chosen image can never give as a solo representation of a moment. The proof of that belief is I believe most clearly evidenced in every page of the brilliant  Magnum Contact Sheets by Kristen Lubben, which I highly recommend.

But perhaps most importantly the message that I took from my day with Bill’s past was the essential nature of the documentation of our work. The where, who and when that future generations will need if they want to understand not only our photographs but also our lives. The search for Bill’s portfolio still continues…


Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer in Professional Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019. He is currently work on his next documentary film project Woke Up This Morning: The Rock n’ Roll Thunder of Ray Lowry.

His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay has been screened across the UK and the US in 2018 and will be screened in the US and Canada in 2019.

© Grant Scott 2019


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