Nice Swim

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.

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