A way to get up and out, By Lynn McLanahan
Negative/Positive: A Philosophy of Photography, by Bill Jay, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company. Dubuque. Iowa.
After one look at the title of this book, I knew how the shark in Jaws felt upon spotting those helpless human legs paddling in the glistening waters above - I was ready to move in for the kill. A "philosophy of photography"? Who would dare to toss such bait into photography's infested waters?
In the Introduction, Bill Jay acknowledges that his title may sound a bit pompous. Just the same, he believes that photography needs to be dealt with as a whole: critics have isolated individual periods, styles, and works, but no one has formed a philosophy that encompasses the entire photographic spectrum. Jay recognizes the enormity of such a task, and is quick to qualify his efforts:
. . . at the outset I must affirm I have no intention of being tentative or of offering a balanced view. I feel passionately for photography and cannot look on what I consider its abuses with detached tolerance. Admittedly this is a subjective view — however I believe it has a validity for some young photographers.
What follows is a carefully drawn picture of the state of contemporary photography, and a bleak picture it is. Rather than dwelling on what he perceives as photography's shortcomings, however, Jay proceeds to outline ways in which a photographer can climb up out of the mire. He carries his torch of hope through such subjects as humanism and naturalism in photography; the importance of a life-attitude; talent; "the individual is more important than the product"; the concept of heroism in photography; peak experiences; the duties of the viewer, and our university class structures.
Jay's writing style makes our journey through such subjects an easy one. As he states in his introduction, he is not interested in "…pandering to the current fad of unintelligible psycho-babble which masquerades in the guise of intellectual criticism."
The joy of this book is that it makes you think. Your eyebrows will rise from time to time, and you'll find yourself agreeing with this and disagreeing with that, but in so doing, you will be forced to think about the medium.
At the end of the book, Jay has tucked in reproductions of a portfolio of David Hum's photographs. They are meant to complement rather than illustrate the text, as indicators of a direction worthy of "heroes of photography." But rather than leaving us up on Mt. Olympus to contemplate, we are pulled down to view images that, due to the poor reproduction quality, we cannot see to best advantage.
Despite this unfortunate ending, Jay's book remains a provocative and articulate polemic for those interested in thinking about photography. It's a good kick-in-the-pants for jaded photographers and offers encouraging and constructive words for those photographers still holding on to a notion of photography as a medium of communicating ideals. Jay is clearly sincere and wholly dedicated to this medium and even if he is, as some claim, a feisty romantic, photographic literature could use a few more like him.