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An Evening With Jay Maisel


An Evening With Jay Maisel


The staff of MacbethPhoto is in New York at the moment, filling up our brains with knowledge and inspiration at PhotoPlus Expo, an annual photography convention hosted by PDN Magazine at the Javits Center in Manhattan.

There is all the usual convention stuff here.

There is a giant, enormous (crowded) expo hall filled with vendors large and small, showing off the latest gadgets, software and services that until 5 minutes ago you didn't know existed, and now you can't live without.

There are seminars from sunrise to dinner time, in which photographers who have been in the business a few years longer than you explain (some of) their secrets for success, tricks they've learned, mistakes they've made, and generally reassure you that you're mostly doing it right, but you're not charging enough for it. 

There are the long lines for the Starbucks, and the questionable choices for a quick meal between classes. 

Then, at the end of each day, there's a presentation by a noted photographer. Generally it's not a "how-to", but more of a story-telling session about a lifetime of experience, which reminds you that you are still new at this, and you pretty much don't know anything about anything.


Such was the case last night, when Hillery and I spent 90 minutes listening to the great Jay Maisel share some of his favorite images from his 60-year career, from early black-and-white film assignments to personal projects shot this summer.

He showed hundreds of images, and each one had a story. It was fascinating to hear him recall specific details of a conversation with a Nigerian fruit vendor 30 years ago, negotiating in order to get the shot he wanted. He did a 21-year retrospective on his daughter, from before birth to college. He showed a very moving series of portraits of people at The World Trade Center site, two weeks after 9/11. He shared his experiences, his mistakes, his lucky breaks. 

I jotted down some of the nuggets that stood out to me, as things I should pay attention to, from someone who's been doing this job a whole lot longer than I have.  

I hope some of these resonate with you the way they did with me.



Selected Quotes by Jay Maisel, speaking at PhotoPlus Expo, Oct. 30, 2014, Javits Center, New York

Shape is the enemy of color.

You are responsible for every square millimeter of the image, both the figure and the ground.

Every picture should have a trigger.

The eyes are not in charge. The brain is in charge.

The lightest thing in the image is where the eye will go first.

We are programmed to see photos as if light always comes from above.

Color is an insidious, mean-spirited, lying sonofabitch. It will fool you every time. 

Three words how you can be a better photographer:  "move your ass."

It's ok to lie to get what you want, but it's best to start with the truth.

Don't become a one-trick pony. Try the opposite sometimes.

I saw an image and HAD to take it. I was compelled to take it. I couldn't help but take it.

Never plan to shoot it later. SHOOT IT NOW. Because later it will be different.

I don't light them. Nature lights them. You just have to look. And when you see them, they are yours forever.

Things are happening all day long. You can't just shoot during 2 hours of golden light each day.

If I have a budget, the first thing I think is "Where can I get a helicopter?"

We were driving somewhere, and I pulled over to go to the john. As I'm getting out of the van, I grabbed my camera. My assistant said "You're going to the bathroom, what the hell do you need the camera for?" I said "Grasshopper, have I taught you nothing?"

I miss 99 out of 100 shots I try to get. I've been doing this 60 years. I have more bad photos than all of you combined.

Everything has gesture. Gesture doesn't necessarily mean action.

I have no idea why he did that. These are the gifts you get from people, and you have to be ready to accept these gifts. 

Things don't just happen very often. But when they do, sometime you have to work like a sonofabitch to get the shot.

The one thing I try to is make the picture my own. 

Near the pyramids at Giza:  "Why does nobody shoot from here?"   "Because it's a firing range."   "And why are we not worried?"   "Because they don't start for another 20 minutes."

I realized that the 85 pictures on the wall [at an exhibit of his favorite work] had something in common: I was a terrified when I took each of them, because I wanted it so badly, and I was afraid something would change before I captured it. 

I like to shoot through things. I think the interest is multiplied when you put things in front of your subject.

It ain't over till you give up.

I like photographing old walls with peeling paint. These colors have gotten to know each other. They're like an old married couple.

"Look at the light!"   "It's not falling on anything."   "I'll wait."

The act of photographing is as important as the finished photograph.

Sometimes you get a shot you didn't plan to get. Don't be hampered by your intention.


Thanks, Jay, for sharing some of your wit and wisdom with us.  



First Friday Fotos - Silver Screen Edition

For our September 2014 edition of First Friday Fotos, we went back in time to Hollywood's Golden Age.   Naturally, we captured studio portraits in classic black & white. How could we go wrong. Take a look at some of the most beautiful, sophisticated and dapper faces of our community.  

Starring Macbeth Photo's Silver Screen Stars of September!