Jay Maisel

Jay Maisel is a visual alchemist. He has the ability to transform ordinary people, places and things into extraordinary photographic gold. One reason may be that he always carries a camera. Over the last twenty years, whenever I’ve run into him on the streets of New York City, he’s always been shooting. Over six feet tall, he’s hard to miss, usually clad in black jeans and a black T-shirt, puffing a big cigar out of one corner of his mouth, and poking a long lens up toward a skyscraper, at some distant bridge, or at the person next to you on the sidewalk.

Like any true New Yorker, he’s not shy about telling you his opinion on anything and everything. But that brashness is tempered by an easy sense of humor and genuine compassion and interest in people. He’s also fascinated by things-both to photograph and to work with in his large wood and metalworking shops. He has a 60-foot-long table covered with objects found on the street, at flea markets and the now disappeared hardware dealers of Canal Street. His treasures range form a five-foot square labyrinth of gold painted metal, dark wood and shiny copper things – the intestines of a baby grand piano – to tiny gears, lenses, magnets, coins screws, glass, marbles and computer components. He lovingly picks one up to show it to you, to admire the shape, the color, the craftsmanship. Without exaggeration, he has hundreds of thousands of these things. How can he store it all, especially in Manhatten?

In 1966, he bought his own bank, and he lives, works and shoots in the 1898 building. Sharing the six floors and 35,000 square feet are his wife, L.A., and their lovely and irrepressible five-year old daughter, Amanda. This is where I talked with Jay early this year. After ringing the bell next to two tall decrepit doors, an assistant ushered me inside. Large prints of Jay’s photos line the walls above a polished wooden floor. A basketball hoop looms overhead, beneath it a supply of balls. At the far end of the court/gallery, two employees oversee phones, computers, and the day to day.

Photo Insider: Did you start out studying photography?

Jay Maisel: No, I went to Yeshiva (Jewish religious school) for eight long, hard years before I went to a very good high school emphasizing art. Then I got a scholarship to study with Joseph Hirsh, a wonderful realistic painter. However, he was photographic in his concerns and interests. He’d ask you, “What’s darker in this picture, what’s lighter? Where is the light coming from? How much is the object you’re painting worth? Can you show that?”

The next year, I got into Cooper Union where I studied painting, drawing and three-dimensional design. At Yale, they would not let me into the photography studio because I was not a commercial major. Thanks to the night watchman, though, I worked in the darkroom every night.

PhotoInsider: Did you know at that point that you wanted to be a photographer?

Jay Maisel: It was after I’d gotten a degree in painting from Yale. I decided in a cowardly or lazy man’s way that I was going to be a photographer. As a painter, I was not confident of my abilities to make a living.

PhotoInsider: What were your first jobs as a photographer?

Jay Maisel: For Dance magazine, album covers for Columbia records, and my first big advertising job was for a pharmaceutical company in 1955. We had to set up very photojournalistic things and at the time no one could get permission to go into mental institutions, so we had to set up something that looked like it, Naturally, I used New York public schools.

PhotoInsider: What were your best and worst assignments?

Jay Maisel: One great assignment was a very commercial one. I was asked to show how a rancher used a computer to keep track of his cattle. From the minute the calf was born, it was put into a computer system and I had to illustrate it. Well, while we were working it started snowing, a big snow, and I had this man carrying his calf out in it, a wonderful picture.

PhotoInsider: You set up the snow, right?

Jay Maisel: (laughs) What is important to me is that the situation is set up by nature, or set up by me, so that the end product is something that I really want to photograph. That’s very, very critical.

Flash now to a year later, the same client. This time they wanted an actual computer with the calf. Now that’s the worst because I would never shoot that. But that’s the job and you have to shoot it and you have to do it the best you can. But, it’s violating my first premise, which is that I’ve got to create a situation that I would want to shoot.

And I didn’t want to shoot it. But that’s where your professionalism comes in so I did it and did the best job I could. Only it does not lend itself to the kind of introspection and creativity and expansion that I could do on the first assignment. So these two are a very good illustration of how the best job and the worst job can be very close to each other.

The absolute best job was where somebody said to me, “Go to seven countries in Africa and shoot absolutely anything you want. You have three days in each country.”

PhotoInsider: Why did they do that?

Jay Maisel: The fact that they had no buildings in place. They were trying to get permission to build plants. Their product was fertilizer, so you didn’t want to show the product. And they couldn’t show the staff because there was no staff. They had nothing to say except, “This is a wonderful place and we want to be here,” which is what they wanted the people in these countries to feel, also.

The countries included Sudan, Somalia, Gabon, Liberia and Senegal. It was very tough getting permission to get into some of these countries, and in some of them we were constantly arrested for taking pictures. But it was a wonderful assignment. The worst part and the best part was that we had no limitations. I was constantly asking myself, “Is this going to work for them. Or am I just spinning my wheels?” So I said to myself, I’m going to do the best I can; that’s what they want.

PhotoInsider: When you’re involved in an extensive shoot, what do you take along with you?

Jay Maisel: I take one assistant, and as much as I can load him with. I don’t like going with a whole crowd, unless there’s a specific reason for it. I use a lot of zooms, a 20-35mm, 35-70mm, and an 80-200mm. They save a lot of time and effort.

PhotoInsider: Do you carry all the film with you?

Jay Maisel: It’s changed so much. I used to put 600 rolls in luggage. Now I don’t put anything in luggage.

PhotoInsider: Yeah, it could all get zapped. Let’s go back now to when you got out of school. How did you start getting work as
a photographer?

Jay Maisel: Shoe leather! There were no source books. It never occurred to me to work for another photographer. In 1954, I went around and showed my portfolio. You could do that back then.

PhotoInsider: What would you suggest to people today?

Jay Maisel: Be born with wealthy parents. In those days, there was very little competition around and photography was a coming market, not a matured market. I loved the instant gratification. I hated fussing around on a painting for months until I totally ruined it.

PhotoInsider: How do you make a living at something you love doing?

Jay Maisel: I don’t want to be cryptic, but how do you not make a living doing something you love? It’s the only chance you have of making a success. God forbid you’re stuck in a situation where you’re doing something you hate.

PhotoInsider: What advice do you give to young photographers on how to promote themselves?

Jay Maisel: Today there are all kinds of source books and all kinds of consultants, people who will tell you exactly what to do – none of which will probably work. But the major thing that all these are asking you to do is to separate yourself from all the other photographers. If you can do that, make a statement that leaves a different impression from the 19 other pieces of mail that the guy got that day and give the impression of a mature person that somebody will trust, you’re in. What I always tell my students is that what they have to do is put themselves in the shoes of the people who are buying from them. Would you buy from you?

I don’t mean wear a coat and tie and be neat. But do you project an image of somebody they would want representing them? Do you project an image of somebody who can be pushed around or who will push other people around? You’ve got to be able to empathize with the guy hiring you and understand where he’s coming from. But first, how do you get them even to consider you? That’s where you have to do your work as a photographer and seperate yourself from the pack. I can’t emphasize strongly enough how much hard work is the answer. And this hard work continues even after you’re making a living as a photographer. Because you have to go out and do the visual pushups every day. You have to make time to shoot for yourself. What they’re doing is, “I have a job, I’ll go work. I don’t have a job, I’ll do something else. I’ll clean out the files. I’ll do this or that.” Which is very admirable – for the files to be clean, but, do they shoot for themselves?

I talk to other photographers about this who have people working for them. They say things like, “I give the assistants free use of all my stuff, but they never do anything. So how are they going to do later on when they don’t have me backing them?”

PhotoInsider: One thing that I’ve remarked about you is that you’re always packing a camera.

Jay Maisel: I always have a camera but I am not always taking pictures. It depends on the type of work you do. If you’re a still life guy, carrying a camera around with you may not seem like it’s germane. But if you are the kind of person who wants to shoot life as it is, you have to do the visual pushups every day. I always carry a camera because the camera should be an extension of you. It shouldn’t be like, “I’m going to go out shooting today.” Because if you wait until you have time to go out shooting tiday, it may not happen. But if you take the camera with you at all times, then you’re out, you’re doing it.

Somebody once said to me, “It’s a shame you’re always taking pictures. You never get a chance to see anything.” I don’t think that they meant it in a nasty way, but there was no understanding of the fact that I’m really seeing very intensely.

PhotoInsider: As far as equipment, do you work mainly in 35mm?

Jay Maisel: For 99% of my work, I use ikon 35mm equipment. I also have gear up to 8×10 and use it on occasion.

PhotoInsider: From looking at your pictures, I get the impression that you are using a lot of different focal lengths, particularly long ones.

Jay Maisel:(Pointing to a 600mm) Yeah, this is a wide angle. On a regular basis, I use from 15mm up to 600mm. If I’m doing a job, I’ll take a 14mm, a 15mm Hologon (long out of production), 20-35mm, 28mm and 35mm PCs (perspective control lenses), 28mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.4, 58mm f/1.2, 75mm f/1.5, 200mm f/2, 300mm f/2.8 and the 600mm f/4. In extreme cases, I’ll go for the 2000mm f/11. You can only use that nine days out of the year. If it’s too hot out, the heat waves screw you up. If it’s too cold out, the heat waves coming out of the building screw you up. So it’s got to be a spring day or an autumn day.

PhotoInsider: Are there films that you particularly like?

Jay Maisel: I use all kinds of film. It’s a very personal decision. I’ll tell you something that a salesman from one big film company told me. He said, “You’d be a fool not to try my competitor’s stuff because it has a different palette. You may like it better.”

PhotoInsider: Looking behind you, Jay, I see you’ve got a big ball head supporting a camera with a 600mm lens. Do you prefer ball heads?

Jay Maisel: Yes, and there’s something new I really like. Gitzo has a two part ball head designed to go with their lightweight graphite tripod, and I use that head a lot now.

PhotoInsider: What things do you feel a photographer needs to be especially aware of? What do you emphasize when you teach?

Jay Maisel: When I gave a talk in Santa Fe last year, a former student of mine came up to me and commented, “There’s something you said that I wrote down and put on my desk, and every time I go out to shoot Iook at it.” What I said was that the artist touches every part of the canvas, the sculptor shapes something. There is a conscious tactile coordination of hand and eye. With a photographer, there is no time involved. The picture takes place in a fraction of a second. But even though it happens instantaneously, we still have the same obligation that every artist has to every square millimeter of the frame.

What this kid was talking about was that had I said that there is no part of an image that is neutral. If it doesn’t help you, it hurts you. You’ve got to be aware of every spot and every corner of that frame. That’s probably the most important thing you can teach somebody.

I wouldn’t dream of telling people what to shoot, except as an exercise that I think they should have as part of a class. I once had a very good student in a university course who, when I asked him to take pictures of people, he said he’d rather not. He liked to take abstract things. That’s all very fine, I said, but now you are going to shoot people. “I don’t think I will,” he said. If you don’t, I’ll fail you, I said. “How can you fail me? I’m one of the best people in this class.” Yeah, but you’re not going to grow. Who cares what you came in as? Did you move in this class?

So, reluctantly, he went out and he shot people. Now this guy is a professional, and his card says “So and so shoots people,” and that’s the major thing he does. So one of the things you try to do when teaching is to open doors. Because you can’t really teach. People have to teach themselves. You just have to let them know what’s going on, you have to show them the doors. And when they open one and go through it, it’s their trip. But, you have to expose them to different things.

I also try to make people aware of the differences between what they think they see and what they actually see, and how subtle color is and how color changes. Also, you need to be aware of something I learned from the painter Josef Albers who said, “Shape is the enemy of color.” And it is. If I showed you my closed hand, you see the color immediately. However, If I open my hand and spread my fingers, you see the shape long before you see the color.

The things that stimulate me are light, gesture and color. Just to be aware of light and how it changes is marvelous. Color pretty much explains itself. As far as gesture, what I mean is not just the pole vaulter clearing the bar or the runner hitting the tape, but all the little things like the way people stand, the way they put their weight on one foot, not both, the way they hunch over or stand tall. Everything has gesture, water can be calm or violent, a tree can reach up or reach down in a certain way. It’s incumbent on us to be aware of this, that every tree is different, every person is different.

PhotoInsider: And they look different at different times of the day, in different light and different weather.

Jay Maisel: To the extent that we can make our pictures specific, it makes our pictures good. Somebody will tell you,”If you’re selling stock, you want to be as generic as possible.” Well, that’s fine is that’ what you’re selling. But if you’re trying to take a picture that means something, you want it to stand alone and have it’s own reference.

PhotoInsider: To what degree do you add elements or otherwise control your pictures?Jay Maisel: It depends what you’re shooting. Like the rancher with the calf in the snow. I put the guy out in the snow and whatever he did, I considered. I didn’t direct him with statements like, “Move your left hand this way, turn the calf here.” You try to work within the parameters you were given.

What I try to do is not direct people in increments of inches, but to put them in a situation where they can not help but reveal what you want them to reveal. That’s not always easy to do.

In the 1950’s, I used to hang around Bert Stern’s place. He would sometimes have a model come on set. It would be him, the camera, the wall, and he wouldn’t tell them anything. They would be so uncomfortable that they would start revealing themselves one way or another, and then he would shoot.

There are a million ways to do it. You might coax it out of somebody, you might jolly them, charm them. Everything does not have the same answer. Just make a choice. Don’t be paralyzed by fear of failure.

PhotoInsider: What do you consider to be the best thing about photography?Jay Maisel: It’s not the money, It’s not the fame, it’s not the awards, it’s not learning something new every day. What it is, is putting the camera up to your eye and seeing something that you’e never, ever seen before. A distinctly different juxtaposition of elements, a new relationship of people, a different kind of color relationship. That’s the most exciting thing for me.

Also, being a photographer gives you a license to steal experiences that you ordinarily wouldn’t have. You enter into other people’s worlds who are usually very highly specialized, very rare.

PhotoInsider: The vaults and the walls of your bank here are filled with photographs you have done. What percentage of them are things you have seen as opposed to situations where you set something up?

Jay Maisel: About 95% are things I’ve seen, that are more personal things. Some are from jobs, but I still haven’t set them up. Some of the most successful images in terms of sales have been things I have not set up.PhotoInsider: You have a unique gift of seeing things that other people dont’ see.

Jay Maisel: I really hope so. One of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received was from a famous Italian photographer who saw one of the shots I did [the reflection of a warm yellow building in the blue water of the river accented with flowing green grasses], and said to me, “I’ve photographed that area where I sent you a dozen times, but I never saw that before.”

PhotoInsider: In terms of stock, are you represented by anyone?

Jay Maisel: No, we sell our own stock. Now, we make big sales, we don’t make any small sales. The reason is, if it’s not something very unique and special, they’ll buy it cheap somewhere else. If it’s something they can’t get anywhere else, then they’ll spend alot of money for it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen every day.

PhotoInsider: What are some of the experiences you’ve had working with editors, art directors and other clients.?Jay Maisel: I did a number of Time-Life books where I had a great editor on a Baja assignment. She practically could tell me which cactus to make a left turn at to find a great shot. She knew everything she could possibly know without going there and she gave me great guidance.

On the other hand, for a different book, they wanted a picture of the famous domed roof of the Harrisburg railroad station. As a result, I spent a lot of time trying to convince these people that they had a domed roof. They spent a lot of time explaining to me that there was not now and never had been a domed roof over the railroad station. When I got back and told the editors, they got P.O.’d.

The final note on assignments is that you should never I’ve the client exactly what he wants, because if you do, you’re short-changing him. Of course you should cover what he wants, but you should be able to bring a lot more to it.

PhotoInsider: You do such a variety of things: corporate, editorial, advertising, annual reports. Does a photographer today have to specialize.

Jay Maisel: I just think that you’ve got to be the best photographer you can be and then choose whatever market and stick to it. It’s such an overcrowded and tremendously saturated field now. If I were starting out today, I think I would work on portraits a lot. It’s the one thing they can’t do in a computer. If you look at every magazine cover today, more than three-fourths of them are portraits.

PhotoInsider: Are you at all interested in digital manipulation?

Jay Maisel: For what? To make fantastical things? That’s never been my schtick.

PhotoInsider: You mentioned earlier that you don’t use filters. Not even polarizers?

Jay Maisel: I use flourescent correction filters, but other than that, no. I’ll use polarizers if I have to for a job. Essentially, what I am looking for is to get what I saw. I’m not trying to create something to show you how clever I am. I am trying to show you that I saw something that you may not have noticed.

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