Archive for June, 1999

Douglas Kirkland

June 22, 1999
As Douglas Kirkland and his wife Francoise enter the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, I watch for a brief moment from across the lounge. During that moment I know what it must feel like to be a photographer, to watch a scene unfold like a familiar growing in a shallow bin of developing fluid. Renowned photographer Kirkland must see slowly forming pictures the moment before he freezes split-second slices of life on film with the click of a camera.
Born in Toronto, Canada, and raised in Fort Erie, Ontario, far from the media hub of New York City, Douglas Kirkland still managed to cultivate his early affinity for photography. He began his photography career at age ten when he took his first picture. He snapped a shot of is family on Christmas morning with his Brownie Box camera clamped together with a garter. He converted a childhood bedroom closet into a darkroom to develop photographs taken with his first real camera, a Kodak Duaflex.

From dodging and burning in a makeshift childhood bedroom darkroom to becoming a published photographer of the stars and recently the photographer on the set of the movie Titanic, Kirkland is the 63 year-old guru of lifes continuous cycle of struggle, failure, and euphoric success.

Accept the fact that you will tested and pushed all of the time–its worth the while if you love photography, Kirkland says as he adjusts his tie. Theres no coasting. The fun of it is to make real, genuine gains.

Kirkland is proof that the battle to the top can be as fun and rewarding as success itself. In 1958, he was apprenticed to photographer Irving Penn in New York City. He was paid only $65 a week, which was a meager salary to support his wife and two babies. He moved closer to home base for a year while he worked in Buffalo, NY, and then in April, 1959, he returned to New York City to attack the photography competition once again. He freelanced as an assistant photographer until July of 1960 when at age 24 he landed a photographer position at Look magazine.

Accept the fact that you will tested and pushed all of the time–its worth the while if you love photography, Kirkland says as he adjusts his tie. Theres no coasting. The fun of it is to make real, genuine gains.

Kirkland is proof that the battle to the top can be as fun and rewarding as success itself. In 1958, he was apprenticed to photographer Irving Penn in New York City. He was paid only $65 a week, which was a meager salary to support his wife and two babies. He moved closer to home base for a year while he worked in Buffalo, NY, and then in April, 1959, he returned to New York City to attack the photography competition once again. He freelanced as an assistant photographer until July of 1960 when at age 24 he landed a photographer position at Look magazine.

I was the second youngest photographer Look ever hired, he says. Stanley Kubrick, the film director, was the youngest. He started when he was sixteen. Like Kubrick, the young Kirkland was destined for future success that came naturally once he was given this chance to actualize his enthusiasm and passion for photography. I was hired to do color, fashion work mainly, and I had the desire to do celebrities, Kirkland explains as he pulls his fingers through is silver hair. I had great enthusiasm and energy, and at that time there was nothing I could not do.

Elizabeth Taylor was the first celebrity Kirkland photographed. With his charm and subtle persuasion, Kirkland coaxed Taylor, who had not been photographed for years, to let him take her picture. The photo session with Taylor was the beginning of three decades of celebrity shots to be showcased in Kirklands Light Years, published in 1989 by Thames & Hudson.

In recalling his successful celebrity shots of CoCo Chanel, Jack Nicholson, Judy Garland, and Charlie Chaplin, to name a few, Kirkland reveals his secret to making the stars look into the camera: The problem with celebrities is that they often try to protect the way they look. They are aware of their good side, and as you get side tracked by things like that, its hard to concentrate on them. I look them in the eye and connect, he says. I really had a relationship with these people that could be seen through the pictures.
In November of 1961, five months after taking pictures of Taylor, the young Kirkland got the opportunity to travel to Paris with photographer Art Buchwald and photograph Marilyn Monroe. The ethereal Monroe flirting with him from behind white silk sheets is the quintessential example of his candid celebrity shots in Light Years.

With his charm and trustworthy demeanor, Kirkland revealed the intimate tears of Ann-Margret, the many faces of Debra Winger, a pensive Diane Keaton, and Susan Sarandons confidence. He magnified the raw emotions and even the pores and wrinkles of his photographed celebrities who became less surreal and more human with every shot.

Although he was master of the trust zone between photographer and subject, he soon realized that the candid power and beauty of his photos did not guarantee instant publishing success. Light Years, three decades of celebrity photography, took twelve to take from conceptualization to publication. At first, I couldnt get published. At one point it was three weeks from going to the printer, and the publisher pulled it, he explains. Thats why I say you have to have an ego to survive. Over a lunch date, someone asked to look at his book of celebrities, and by the time the lunch check had been paid, he had cut a book deal. Two months later, Light Years was on its way to the printer. Kirkland learned that even a talented photographer has to wait in the publishing line with his ego at bay. Dont let your ego get in the way. You need a lot of ego to keep bouncing back, but dont have so much ego that you think youre always right because youre not, he says.

In the autumn of 1963 after a string of successes and opportune photo shoots with Look magazine, Kirkland went off the staff and worked under contract with Look, which allowed him to freelance for different publications such as Venture magazine. He shot the cover for the first issue, and Venture sent him to Greece and Lebanon to put together photo essays. Then, Look folded, and in 1971 Kirkland began to work for Life magazine.

As a child, Kirkland had discussed and analyzed the photographs in Life magazine with his father, Morley. Ironically, several years after deep Life talks with his dad, Kirkland became a photographer for the magazine. Hired by the Time Life Company, Kirkland worked for several of the publications, including People, Money and Sports Illustrated. Then, in the early eighties, he added to his published pile and satiated his interest in science by doing science work for Omni, Science Digest and Life. There werent enough hours in the day at this point, Kirkland says.
His interest in science expanded along with his awareness of culture and politics. He did a story on the Beijing film studio in the early eighties. The first time he was in Beijing, their cultural revolution had ended
and everything was demolished. When Kirkland revisited in 1995, he witnessed a cultural rebirth. As people and cultures evolved in the eighties, so did photography and Kirklands techniques.

During his earlier years at Look and Life, he would spend three weeks to a month with the person he was photographing; but this process was inefficient and unthinkable in the eighties. I did things in a day or two, and I had to work faster and size people up faster, Kirkland recalls. Im not sure if I had the opportunity I would take it back to spending a month with a person. I feel, in retrospect, it was right for me at the time. In the pre-eighties years, Kirkland also traveled without lights and produced available light shots. Available light was almost hallowed, like it was very special, and now we feel the picture is the most important thing, and if we need a light we use one, he says. But in those days, reality was more important.

Light Years, which includes a color photograph of Audrey Hepburn that celebrates her face, pores and undereye wrinkles, exemplifies the early theory that real is best. Adapting to the highly competitive, get-the-best-picture photography of the nineties, Kirkland shot the original Audrey Hepburn in black and white. The interesting thing is, in those earlier years, if a photos in black and white, it was thought of as second value. Today, its gone the other way around, and I love this black and white in this book, Kirkland says as he looks over Hepburns flawless complexion. Legend captures new renditions of Light Years originals and fresh additions, such as shots of John Travolta and photography great, Man Ray.

A continuation of the Light Years three decade documentation, Legends, published in March, 1998, by Gingko, steps into the nineties. Kirkland dabbles in the emerging digital photography of the nineties in his book ICONS: Creativity with Camera and Computer, published by Collins San Francisco in 1993. He discovered the computer for the first time in 1993 when Kodak opened a digital imaging center in Camden, Maine. It suddenly seemed that I had a super darkroom that could do everything- dodge, burn, change color, crop, Kirkland says of his new discovery. I found it tremendously exciting and invigorating. Digital, seemingly metallic shots of celebrities, such as Cindy Crawford, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Kim Basinger, add to the ICONS collection of modern photography. Kirkland says he took the computer to an extreme dimension, creating futuristic images that pushed beyond traditional photographs. Today Im more inclined to take true photography, and Im not doing that extreme work I was doing then, he says. The computer can never replace the look of passion or the importance of the truth in the picture. The computer should not be a substitute for good photography. To Kirkland, good photography is honest, positive photography that literally strips the subject of any reservations or insecurities.

His book, Body Stories, published in 1997 by Leonardo Arte, features nudes, mostly close friends of Kirkland and Francoise, who confidently make being naked beautiful. The concept for this book began after Kirkland photographed a 22 year-old male dancer as a gift to the dancers boyfriend. At the end of the session, Kirkland ended up with nude photographs of the dancer who agreed to enter the photos in an AIDS benefit auction. Three platinum prints of the nude dancer were sold for $3000, and Kirklands new creative endeavor emerged. He started photographing more friends nude and hung the prints on the walls at his home to judge and edit. As other friends came over to dinner, they also analyzed and commented on the exhibited nudes. By the time they had finished the main course, they too wanted to be immortalized in the growing nude collection. A lot of people who had never been photographed in the nude before were nervous, but afterwards they felt totally exhilarated because it had been such a wonderful, wonderful experience, Francoise explains. They all felt very beautiful and flawless, she continues as she smiles admirably at her husband. Kirkland settled the models nerves by playing soft music, covering their bodies in gauze, and, most importantly, looking into their eyes. I work alone with them, and you must look them in the eye and not over their private parts in a vicious way because its the photography youre doing and nothing more than that, he says. Youre creating something of beauty, he says as he looks at the first photograph in the book. The male model in the first photo was so nervous that his sweat dripped onto the seamless paper. Kirkland says that although the model was both worried and apologetic, it was his perspiration that created the beautiful gleam along his back. Body Stories exemplifies his theory that the greatest satisfaction in life is doing something for yourself. But part of the challenge of success is being able to perform at the same optimal level when you are creating a product for someone else.

As photographer on the set of Titanic, written and directed by James Cameron, Kirkland learned to balance his personal expression with the creative force of a movie making team. As a still photographer, youre there to supplement the film, but not to get in the way. You have to accept the fact that youre not the center of things-the camera and the stars are the center, and you have to allow your ego to step aside. he says.

Kirkland, who has worked on 75 movies including Sophies Choice, Out of Africa, and Showgirls, has struck gold with his Titanic still-lifes that can be seen in the book, James Camerons Titanic. The book published by Harper Collins Publishers in 1997, showcases the making of the early twentieth century love saga and is in its second printing. Through motion picture photography, Kirkland learns to tell a story. Doing still photography for a film is like doing a huge report over time. You keep processing things in your head and figure out what statements you want to make about the film.

From taking his first photo of his family Christmas morning to shooting scenes from Titanic, Kirklands life lessons have taught him how to be a great communicator. My love is communicating, Kirkland states. I feel empowered to be able to photograph in different styles and tell a story about the images, put them in the computer, retouch them. The accomplished photographer thoroughly understands the art and the business of getting a photography book together and getting it published. Great art directors, writers, trial and error, and a cultivated perseverance have been his greatest teachers. And now, with knowledge of the publishing process and enough personal dedication, he knows he can accomplish any project. My fantasy can wander into different places. I think I should do a kids book, or I look at the cats in our house and think I should do an entire book on them. I probably wont, he says with a smile. Leaving his cat book idea in the recess of his mind, his latest project is about cinematographers and the evolution of cinematography for the American Society of Cinematographers. Colleague Bob Fisher and Kirkland have already photographed 80 cinematographers, and they plan to unearth early stills of movies that later evolved into the motion picture. The movie business really began with just the photographer. There wasnt a director, just a man with a camera.

Kirkland is excited about his next project and savors the period between conception and actuation because he can truly enjoy the project before jumping into work. Kirkland accepts the fact that success is a continual test. Regardless of how much he already knows, Kirklands secret to success is realizing he still has more to learn. Theres no easy gig or magic lantern you can rub and always get it right, you have to keep questioning yourself. I guarantee I will make a lot of mistakes, but I hope to catch those mistakes before they are published, he says. You should never say I got this perfect and now Im going to work part-time on it. If you have greater capability, push yourself more and get better–keep stretching, stretching, stretching.

Kirkland concludes with a confident, knowing smile, There aint no free lunch. These are just my beliefs. Based on his impressive past accomplishments, the belief that hard work and humble dedication render success is true for photographer and inspirational sage, Douglas Kirkland.


Jay Maisel

June 22, 1999
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.

Duane Michals

June 22, 1999
Life is too short to be distracted by the pesky, mundane questions that plague most photographers: “How can I get this model to smile without showing her teeth?” or, “Does this house look better with or without the little red wagon in front?” So think hard, think deep and ask new questions. As a photographer, how can you present the nature of existence and the drama of the human condition? How will you define beauty and ugliness in visual terms? What is death and why is mankind fixated on rational explanations of the afterlife? In short, send the models home and start asking the BIG questions.

Duane Michals has been examining these issues over the span of his legendary and influential career, blurring the boundaries between photography and philosophy to create a body of work that is unique in the field. Unlike many of his contemporaries who fixate on manufactured ideas of what is true and real in the world, Michals delves deep into the unconscious mind to find lasting meaning in his life and his art.

“When people ask me what I am, I tell them I’m the artist formally known as a photographer,” says Michals when describing his creative position in life. “I am an expressionist and by that I mean I’m not a photographer or a writer or a painter or a tap dancer, but rather someone who expresses himself according to his needs.” He has often found himself an outsider in the photographic universe that he finds dull and uninspired. Too many photographers, according to Michals, unconsciously rely on what he dubs “PC or political correctness.” Stuck in a visual bind, photographers pander to the lowest common denominator and, by doing so, betray what he believes are the possibilities of the medium. Instead, Michals uses visual narratives and symbolism to convey ideas and interpretation of the human condition.

According to Michals, to illustrate grief by taking a picture of a woman crying does not aid the observer in understanding it is truly like to experience deep sadness. Instead, the photographer must help the viewer feel what the woman feels by tracing the woman’s pain with photographs, text, icons, or anything else that that brings the audience closer to the actual experience. “It’s the difference between reading a hundred love stories and actually falling in love,” he emphasizes.

Michals’ career has been based on these terms, a hodgepodge of the brilliant, silly, metaphysical and playful, has changed the face of photography. for four decades he has asked questions with photography rather than give answers.

Now at 66, Michals believes he has never been more engrossed in redefining the medium that he is at this moment in his life. “Photography has to transcend description… it can never pretend to give you answers. That would be insulting.”

Michals’ journey with a life-altering trip to Russia at age 26. With a borrowed camera and no agenda, he ventured behind the iron curtain at the height of the Cold War for the sheer adventure of seeing the “enemy” on their own soil. Mindful of the fact that most Americans during this period considered his trip dangerous and even crazy, he wandered around the city of Minsk, taking portraits of the people who were supposed to be our adversaries. What he discovered, however, was that he had more in common with the people he met than he could have ever imagined. It was a revelation. Armed with the notion that there is an inherent creative reward in taking risks, Michals returned to New York to pursue photography in a way that would satiate his desire to explore the confounding mysteries of the human condition.

Photography in the early 1960s was dominated by the documentary and portrait style. To reject the paradigm of the medium during the era was to reject the conventions of such giants as Angel Adams and Robert Frank. Michals did – exploring photography with a sense of freedom and experimentation. Sequences of shots that ran with a narrative theme became Michals” means of making sense of issues such as desire, time, youth and death. He did not, and still does not, believe himself to be radical in terms of the questions he asks with his art. “I think that these are very reasonable questions to ask. What could be more important?”

Intent on expressing the ideas as opposed to capturing images, he aimed to develop a meaningful relationship with photography. For Michals, it has always been of paramount importance that a photograph not only evoke feeling, but that it be enhanced by inviting the viewer to internally examine issues and ideas. In asking questions that are of such enormous scope and consequence, he is cognizant that he has taken a difficult and frustrating path. “I fail more than I exceed in a way that someone taking a picture of a sunset can never fail,” notes Michals. It is a mantra and has kept him reflective and insightful in a field dominated by fads and heavy consumerism.

Throughout his career, Michals claims he has never worked for the benefit of an audience. As much as critics and student of photography scrutinize his work, Michals creates art solely for his own exploration. “If I cared what people thought of my work, I would never get near some of the issues I confront. Certainly not gay issues. I’d have to resort to things that shock, which seems to be all the rage.”

Avoiding the trappings of the New York photography scene, absent from parties and openings, Michals works feverishly, conceiving an idea and bringing it to its end result without pause. The pace of his creative process allows him to avoid self-censorship and create instinctively. By the time a piece has been shown or published, he has moved onto something new. His work remains vital, kinetic, and wholly uninfluenced by public reaction.

To examine Michals’ work is to step into a surreal and dreamlike universe where faces and figures are not always what they seem. People are seen standing in a vast conglomerate of stars, heads are pulled from magic hats and men gaze at ghostly figments of their imagination. These images are derived from Michals’ ever evolving philosophy of how the universe operates. It dishes out maddening speculation and logical rationalization in equal amounts, carefully pieced together from years of intensive reading and hypothesizing about the meaning of existence. “If we use observable fact to dictate what the possibilities of life are, then we are stuck with those that believe the earth was flat. It’s like saying when we shut off the radio, the music no longer exists because it only came from the tubes within.” These ruminations manifest themselves in his work with dramatic results.

It is challenging enough to derive meaning form the art of photography when the artist is concerned with the rational literal observation of the world. It is more difficult when the artist moves beyond mere observation and into the realm of his thoughts and translates his muse into film.

Michals bridges this gap because he is unfettered by the medium’s boundaries and explores his visions through interpretive conceptual “spin-offs.” For example, when illustrating desire and femininity he rejects the idea that women are merely objects of lust, as depicted in many images, and tries to envision the more intimate details of what it is truly like to be a woman. “What photographers show in magazines is woman as sex objects. If you want to see tits and ass, that’s observation. It is not getting into the nature of what it feels like to be woman… and that’s what’s interesting.” Instead, according to Michals, he might explore what it is like for a woman to experience cramps to delve deep into the meaning of womanhood. “I don’t want to catalog images. I want to get into something that I can’t truly describe. I might fail in the process, but it’s where true creativity is born.”Recently, the photographer has had to cope with the deteriorating health and death of his elderly mother and, therefore, the consequences of life and death. Although deeply emotional about the prospect of losing a parent, he is also philosophical about the idea of death and has explored the concept in his photography. Again, Michals moves beyond the idea that the body is merely a vessel for biological functions and tries to envision the processes through which the spirit moves from the body out into the expanse of space and time. The layers of insight into the concept of death, says Michals, cannot be bound by the mechanics of photography, but must be given editorial comment and a sense of narrative. By approaching photography in this way, the spectator is given a glimpse into the possibilities of ideas that are often difficult to grasp. Michals’ visual meditations about death are not morbid dramatizations of an idea that some people naturally fear, but rather a series of questions asked to reach a closer understanding of something we will all someday face.

Not all of Michals’ work is rooted in heavy, mid-boggling issues. In fact, the photographer has a sharp sense of wit and an air of silliness that reveals itself in both his conversations and his photographs. Foolishness to Michals means being playful and expressive with words and images. A series of shots entitled What Funny Things Billy Dreams is indicative of this side of his work. The visual narrative uses illustration and photography to penetrate the seemingly ordinary man who has fantastic dreams set in an almost fairy tale world. The series, included in Michals’ children’s book Upside Down, Inside Out and backwards, (or Downside Up, Outside In and Frontwards, depending on whether you are looking at the front or the back cover) reflects Michals’ childlike innocence and sense of wonder. Michals is outspoken in his criticism of the current superstars of the photography world and has a particular lack of regard for fashion photography. He has gone so far as to come up with a term, ‘fartster,’ (first introduced in his article “Dr. Duane’s Infernal Tongue and Cheeky Journal,” published in the magazine 21) to describe “one who confuses fashion with art…” The word, both ridiculous and biting, plays with the idea that society has been transfixed for too long with the shallow pretenses of celebrity and personality. “Herb Ritts is a fartster, the Boston Museum is a fartster.

To show head shots of Cindy Crawford or any of the multitudes of Cindys is the work of a fartster,” Michals explains. True art according to Michals, involves a lasting and profound reflection of society that will stand the test of time. It is gleeful irony then that his most recently published work appears in the pages of French Vogue with a pouty soldier of the Army of Cindys staring coyly from the cover. Nestled between perfume inserts and hemline shots, Michals’ work brings an exploration of quantum theory to the bible of shallowness. It is as if he is subverting from within. The series illustrates philosophical concepts such as Schrdinger’s Cat and Heisenberg’s Mirror in the mischievous Michals style. Wormholes colliding particles and the theory of backwards time travel are photographed symbolically with humorous captions that fill the unlikely pages of the glossy monthly.

Michals rarely teaches, but his workshops and lectures around the country are enormously popular with students looking to avoid a “fartster” career. He enjoys teaching by example, pushing other photographers to reject the conventions of photography and look inward for the questions that will stimulate artistic growth and enhance the medium. He encourages those in the field to study not only photographers, but painters, filmmakers, philosophers and writers as well. Italian painter DeCurrico, directors Woody Allen and Bernardo Bertolucci, and eastern philosophy such as the Tibetan Book of the Dead have all influenced Michals. But perhaps it is the writer Walt Whitman who has had the greatest influence on Michals and his outlook on life. While still an adolescent, struggling with his sexuality and his Catholic upbringing, Michals found Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and was astounded and nurtured by the poetic brilliance of the work. He felt it spoke directly to him and discovered great strength in Whitman’s honesty. He carried a copy of the book with him while in the Army during the Korean War and still has it today. Later in life, Michals published a book Salute, Walt Whitman, as an homage to the author including photographs exploring Whitman’s influence on himself and others.

As the 20th century draws to a close, Michals is cautiously optimistic about our place in history. He hopes that our era will be remembered for its ideas, not the trivial indulgences of rock stars and flashes of celebrity. He is vocal about his frustration worth the current political climate in Washington and has spent time writing to Congress urging our representatives to focus on the larger issues and problems faced by the country. This sense of activism seems to be a natural extension of Michals’ philosophy, pushing others to look within themselves, as opposed to looking for simple and uninspired means to garner attention. As a photographer, or rather, an expressionist, Michals’ place in the history of art is secure – and he shows no signs of slowing down. “I’ve never felt more freedom than I do anything and I’m having a great time.”