Bill Jay and David Hurn

These two gentlemen have had a more profound impact on me as a student and a photographer than any of the other authors on critical theory and photography that I have encountered to date.

Occam’s Razor articulated so many things that I had been feeling but unable to put into words myself.  In the first module I was a bit frustrated with the critical theory and the obtuse language with which most of it was written.  It was though it was meant to obfuscate rather than illuminate.  In the end it struck me as a lot of hot air; academics looking to justify their tenured chair positions using language that did little to clarify the topic and make it accessible to in practical terms.  Bill Jay seemed to lift the veil in plain language and with uncommon sense cut away so much of the unnecessary.  He was my Dorothy pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz to reveal the world of critical theory as more overblown, pompous and inaccessible than it needed to be.

On Being a Photographer, in which Jay and Hurn teamed up to have a frank discussion about all things photographic was another breath of fresh air.  Down to earth, practical advice that could be understood, absorbed and put into practice.  I have extensive underlines and highlights throughout both of these books, and I have regularly returned to both throughout this module.

On the relationship between life and art Jay wrote, “A photograph is the end product of someone caring about something ‘out there’. The best photographs exude this caring attitude in a manner which is not definable but which is very evident.”  “Life and art should have everything to do with each other.  In practice, as I view the medium of art photography, art and life have very little connection.” “Students are taught, by implication, that their photographs must make reference to current stylistics trends, deal meaningfully with critical issues in the medium, refer self-reflexively with photography itself.  Because that is what so-called significant photographers are doing. Life itself? Irrelevant.” “Apart from a lack of manners, taste and common humanity, these photographers display an abysmal ignorance of life: no one is interested in the sordidness of their petty lives.”  I found these words very much described how I viewed a great deal of contemporary art photography. There were tropes and trends I saw in exhibit after exhibit at Unseen Amsterdam. I found these tropes uninteresting when they first appeared and by the time I’d seen them several times they had become just plain tiresome.

On the importance of subject and the development of a unique style, Jay writes, “When I walk through a forest at night, the track emerges from the darkness by not looking for it.  A unique style emerges in photography by ignoring it, concentrating on the subject, and allowing care, passion and knowledge to bubble to the surface through a lot of hard work over a long period of time.”  And Hurn’s thoughts, “It comes down to the choice of subject.  The photographer must have intense curiosity, not just a passing visual interest, in the theme of the pictures.” “If the images are not rooted in ‘the thing itself,’ to use Edward Weston’s term, then the photographer has not learned anything about the real world.  He/she can only justify the images by reference to self: ‘This is how I felt.’  Before long, this leads to incredibly convoluted psychoanalysis in a futile effort to justify the most banal, superficial work.” “A unique style, which is what we are talking about, is the by-product of visual exploration, not its goal.”

On photography and its power as a medium, Jay commented, “Words were required before the disturbance of the image was received with full power.  We constantly need reminding that photographs are not narrative in function, and when asked to perform this function they need words.  In fact, an important point must be stressed: The source of much disturbance in photography is created by the words which accompany the image – with the image making the words up-close, real and actual.”  In this case he had been discussing disturbance in several senses in the context of photographs having some degree of power to upset the status quo societally or personally. In a prior post on the idea of truth in photography and otherwise I made the point that a single photograph can never tell the absolute truth and even with words truth can be elusive because the interpretation is always in the hands of the viewers who are burdened with their own unique sets of filters, biases and experiences that influence their interpretations.  Words can help to clarify intent but will not guarantee understanding.

On photographic criticism, Jay noted, “All meaning in photography is imposed; it is not intrinsic to the images.” “Ideally, photographic criticism should provide one or more of the following services: introduce you to photographers of whom you were unaware; expand your appreciation of a photographer’s work; place the images in the context of photography’s history; place the images in the context of the artist’s culture; and, while accomplishing these services, throw light upon the creative/artistic process.  These services demand that the critic demonstrates superior knowledge and insight.  The result will be photographic writing which is informative, elevating and, above all else, useful.  The problem with so much of photographic writing at present is that it is destructive, mean-spirited and useless to the practicing photographer. Critical opinions should always be taken with a large grain of salt.  For the most part they are manifestations of the critic’s debate with himself as to what opinions he should hold in order to be a fully paid up member of the group to which he aspires to belong.  These opinions may have no direct relevance to the photographs being discussed.”  I think Jay’s point is again that there is a good deal of self-justification in the world of critique as there is in critical theory, when photography is and should be foremost an artistic expression of the photographer’s view of his or her world at the moment the shutter button was pressed.  We as photographers cannot control completely how our work is viewed or even in some cases how it is used.  So, I think we need to be true to ourselves and develop some thick skin at times.  Jay also wrote, “The use of language that is worthless leads to the propagation of worthless ideas and, inevitably, to the adoption of worthless acts. Language, ideas and actions are inseparable.  A good deal of the trite, witless, meaningless photography which is being shown, and praised, today has its roots in our refusal, or inability, to use words precisely.  The photographic fashion for art-jargon, puffed up with false erudition, and decorated with complicated constructions, reveals an underlying poverty of thought.  Photography demands clear thinking.  Good ideas demand clear communication. Yet our language seems designed to conceal more than it tells, and usually cloaks the shameful nakedness that there is little or nothing worth telling.”  “Photography is healthier when its language is specific. It improves our chances of understanding and we are better able to sift the meaningful from the meaningless.”  “I have had enough of these bad writers whose main purpose is confuse rather than clarify, to confound me with complicated constructions when straight talk would be preferable.”  “It is ironic that as photography has become more popular with the public, so the language of photography has become more turgid, ponderous and unintelligible.  Never before has the importance of clear communication been so imperative.  Never before has its lack of clarity been so clearly evident.”

I appreciate so much that Bill Jay, an academic, is able to speak in such plain terms and is willing to take to task those who do not.  But like many large organisations and institutions, the tail eventually ends up wagging the dog.  Support functions begin to think that the real doers only exist to give them a job rather than the reality that the supporting cast are there to make it possible for the doers to accomplish their mission, which is always ultimately the reason the organisation or institution exists in the first place.  Photographers photograph and they should be encouraged to continue to do so.  Every photograph has worth and significance to someone and while they will not all be Pulitzer or Taylor-Wessing winning compositions they are, at least for the person who took the image, ‘the thing itself’.  Photography is a tool for communication.  No photograph will communicate to everyone, and in fact no photograph will communicate the same thing to those who view it, but if a photograph can communicate something to someone, no matter how small, it has served its purpose.  David Hurn elaborates on this by saying, “What is indisputable is that the better the picture the more people will look at it over a longer period of time – which means the subject matter will have more resonance whatever the original reason for admiring the image.  I have never understood the idea that the picture is ‘too good’; it is never too good as long as the subject has been clearly revealed. The photographer’s aim is to create beautiful pictures, of any and all subject matter.”

Finally, on the future of photography, Hurn’s comments on photographic morality and the role of photography in society were particularly poignant and instructive.  He wrote “Morality means nothing more than doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind, decent, and doing it with a reasonable expectation that in the long run, as well as the short, we will not be sorry for what we have done.  It means we protect our subject matter when we shoot.  It means we do not lie about or abuse it in order to increase our chances of being published.  It means we do not lie about or abuse it to gain status for ourselves in the gallery or fine art world.”  “Without compromise we must attempt to present our inspiration, our representation, in a way that makes it credible and vivid to our audience.  Not only information to the intellect, but feelings to the emotions.  But sincerity is not enough.  Very few people who take photographs are visual.  They do not see.  They record – that’s not seeing.  It is very hard to see.”

I take it my challenge as a photographer to learn to see more and learn to see better, both when taking images and when looking at images others have taken.


Hurn, D., & Jay, B. (2009). On Being a Photographer (Third). Anacortes, WA: LensWork Publishing.

Jay, B. (n.d.). Occam’s Razor: An Outside-In View of Contemporary Photography (Third). Tucson, AZ: Nazraeli Press.



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