By Bill Dobbins
When I was a kid first learning photography, I wanted to be Jay Maisel – I just didn’t realize it. I would carry a camera everywhere and shoot anything that caught my attention. That is something that Jay Maisel is a master of – in fact, one of the great photographers of everyday life and what happens around us of all time.
“I don’t have a hidden message,” says photographer Jay Maisel. “I like looking at life. If I can convey the beauty of life to you, if I can make you say, ‘Wow, I never realized how beautiful that was,’ then I feel I’ve been successful.”
“Always carry a camera, it’s tough to shoot a picture without one.” – Jay Maisel
“When I graduated from Yale was when I did my last painting. But I am a believer that knowledge of art helps you to make your photographs richer.”
For almost 50 years Maisel lived with his family in the historic Germania Bank Building in lower Manhattan. Built in 1898, the 35,000-square-foot (3,300 m2) single-family mansion contains 72 rooms over six floors. Maisel purchased the building in 1966 for $102,000 when the neighborhood was in severe decline. The building’s value was estimated at $30 to $50 million in 2008. New York Magazine called it “maybe the greatest real-estate coup of all time”.
“Never say you’re going back – SHOOT IT NOW!” – Jay Maisel
Maisel studied graphic design with Leon Friend at Abraham Lincoln High School, in Brooklyn, and fine arts and painting with Joseph Hirsch. After studying painting at Cooper Union and Yale, with Josef Albers, he began his career in photography in 1954. While his portfolio includes the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Miles Davis, he is perhaps best known for capturing the light, color, and gesture found in everyday life.
Some of his commercial accomplishments include five Sports Illustrated swimsuit covers, the first two covers of New York Magazine, the aforementioned cover of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (the best-selling jazz album of all time), twelve years of advertising with United Technologies, and awards from such organizations as ICP, ASMP, ADC, PPA, and Cooper Union.
Since he stopped taking on commercial work in 1995, Jay Maisel has continued to focus on his personal work. And teaching. He has developed a reputation as a giving and inspiring teacher as a result of extensive lecturing and photography workshops throughout the country.
Maisel could hardly imagine in his early student years that photography was going to become so important as his personal and professional career. It was the times of New Deal and the Farm Security Administration was subsiding artists and supporting extensive documentation of all aspects of America. This is why we now have wonderful photos of the dustbowl farmers by documentary photographers like Dorothea Lange.
“Try to go out empty and let your images fill you up.” – Jay Maisel
Jay Maisel shot film for years and now uses a digital camera. He advises photographers to use the same approach to both. “The idea,” he says, “is to get it in the camera, rather than relying on post-production. There are three important elements you should consider: light, gesture and color. If you don’t have an effective image in terms of those three things putting your picture through Photoshop isn’t going to save it.”
Photography means “painting with light” so obviously the lighting in any photo is very important. Light is constantly changing and is affected by things like geography, weather and time of day. Ansel Adams shot in great locations but knew enough to wait until the weather and the light was perfect for what he was trying to achieve.
“You don’t have to go to exotic locations to find the right light,” explains Jay Maisel. “There can be great light in Brooklyn or in Florence, Italy. You just have to pay attention, be aware and be constantly looking. When I go out to do photos I try to do so without preconceptions. I let the images find me. I try to be open to what is there and be as unprepared as possible.”
“When finding the right angle for a shot…’Move your ass.’” – Jay Maisel
“Gesture” is what is going on in a photo that gives your pictures their specific characteristics. “I’ve done photos where somebody was doing something specific, leaning a certain way, with a particular expression on their face, that would not have been as effective a second or two before or after I pressed the shutter.”
This sounds like something that might have been said by Decisive Moment Henri Cartier-Bresson, another great photographer of the life around us.
Jay Maisel has shot famous images of celebrities, street life and just about everything else. He has no specific subjects he concentrates on to the exclusion of others. For example, he had a 360-degree view from the roof of his building. He would go up there with a long lens and photograph the surrounding cityscape. By using different angles and crops, shooting at different times of the day and in different weather, he has accumulated an outstanding archive of photos. No travel to exotic locations required.
Since he stopped taking on commercial work in 1995. Jay has continued to focus on his personal work. Maisel has developed a reputation as a giving and inspiring teacher as a result of extensive lecturing and photography workshops throughout the country. He also continues to sell prints, which can be found in private, corporate, and museum collections.
“If the light is great in front of you, you should turn around and see what it is doing behind you.” – Jay Maisel
“To me,” he says,” the print is the final, best expression of a photograph. Years ago I had my work printed as dye-transfers, which were both beautiful and archival. When those became unavailable I had trouble finding a print process I liked. Nowadays, I have my own Epson printer which is producing prints that I know will last and do justice to my photos. I don’t have much patience for photographers who make prints that they know are going to fade and not last.”
Jay Maisel has been doing photos for many, many decades and nowadays he focuses mostly on his own projects. And he is nowhere close to retiring. He still has a major passion for photography. Besides which, why retire when you are doing work and living a life that others retired in order to be able to do?
Bill Dobbins is a professional photographer, videographer and writer based in Los Angeles. His work has been exhibited as fine art in two museums, a number of galleries, and he has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Taschen)
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