An Interview with Jay Maisel   February 27, 2001

Chris Maher and Larry Berman

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Exclusive photographs from Jay's NYC studio

Jay Maisel
is recognized as one of the top natural-light color photographers in the world. Shooting commercially since the mid 1950's, he has always been considered a purist, not doing any image manipulation and only having dye transfer prints done of his images. He is now shooting 100% digital with Nikon's D1 digital camera, and printing his photographs on an Epson 1270. Over the years, his images and style have inspired countless photographers. It's fascinating to see how current technology has changed his working methods and his definitions. Jay's latest book, published by Firefly Books (ISBN: 1-55209-496-0), contains 160 color photographs and is titled, appropriately, "Jay Maisel's New York".

Chris/Larry: Let's begin by talking about your new book, "Jay Maisel's New York." You've been shooting pictures of New York for what, 45 years now? 

© 2001 Jay Maisel - Book Cover

Jay: Yes.

Chris/Larry: Your new book has some truly wonderful images.

Jay: Thank you.

Chris/Larry: Over what time span were those images shot?

Jay: Well, there are some that go back almost 45 years, but the great majority of them are, I'd say, in the 80's and the 90's.

Chris/Larry: Does it contain any images that were shot digitally?

Jay: No.

Chris/Larry: Did you revisit any of them with Photoshop? In any way update them?

Jay: No, let me put it this way. I have made prints from them, and we use Photoshop, of course. But we're not attempting to do any manipulation with them. As you know, it's a slippery slope. Because you say, well, I don't want to change it, but I really don't have the contrast here that I wanted. And so you start getting into a little rationalization on it. But for the most part, what we're just trying to do, our motivation is not to change it. Our motivation is to recreate the image that was on film. So that you might do something in terms of contrast to retain what you had. But the motivation is not there to make a better image or to do that kind of thing.

Chris/Larry: So, you've kept the integrity of the original. I've also seen some great images of New York that were not in the book. It must have been really tough to choose what went in and what didn't. 

Jay: Oh Jeez. I'll tell you the truth. Without exaggeration, here's what happened. I spent a lot of time and effort getting the contract and the terms together. And one of the terms was that they would ask for 200 pictures. And when it came time to ask, they asked for 300. And I said no, you asked for 200. And they said OK, because they're very nice people to work with. Come down to the bottom line I sent them 600 images. I couldn't get it down. 

Chris/Larry: (laugh) Well, you did a very nice job in bringing together the ones that you did decide on. 

Jay: Wait till you see the next one.

Chris/Larry: Alright. I know you've had gallery shows of your prints. Is there a web site that people can visit and purchase original prints of your images?

Jay: I really neglected the web site but yes, they can look at the web site, We haven't paid attention to peddling prints on it but it's something we have to do, we will get to it.

Authors Note
If you would like to be informed of when Jay's images are ready for sale on his web site, give us your contact information, and we will see you are notified when Jay's site is updated.

Chris/Larry: It's set up primarily for stock sales at this point?

Jay: I think it was set up primarily because I felt I should do it. And, if stock sales come out of it, fine. If print sales come out of it, fine. You know whatever happens. We have really not pursued it as intelligently as we should have. 

Chris/Larry: Let's switch over to equipment for a second. We saw you were using the Nikon D1 at PMA. Have you been shooting with that digital camera very long?

Jay: I started shooting with it in January 2000. And I don't think I've shot but one roll of film ever since. 

Chris/Larry: So, right now you're basically shooting a hundred percent digitally.

Jay: A hundred percent, right.

Chris/Larry: Interesting. How different is that than the Nikon F series bodies you've always used?

© 2001 Jay Maisel - First Snow Elizabeth St.

Jay: Well, there's certainly a family relationship there in terms of the placement and the concept and the quality of the image and the quality of the lenses and the quality of the camera. But I would say that it seems so much more trouble free than the film cameras I've used. I mean I'm not sending it in for repairs as often. But then, I've noticed as the F series increased, and I started with the original Nikon F. As it increased, I used to have 16 Nikon F's, because there were always like four in the shop, four coming back from the shop, four at work, and four spares. By the time we got to the F5, I only had two bodies. I didn't need any more. It became a lot more efficient.

Chris/Larry: How about the D1's unique abilities? It has some variations in the way that it works - such as the 50% apparent increase of focal length. Do you miss your really wide lenses, or do you find that to be a helpful thing?

Jay: No. I'll tell you, remember I said I shot one roll of film? That roll of film didn't work out by the way. That roll of film was shot because there was a rainbow that was very unusual here because usually rainbows go on a flat plane in relation to the city and I guess go North and South. This one went, because of the time of day, because of the time of year, this one went from right in front of my building, which is due East, looking East, went all the way up to the Empire State Building. And, I couldn't do it with my 14, because the 14 became a 21. And so I ran and did it with another camera but it just didn't work out because I was in full panic and screwing up. 

Chris/Larry: (laugh) One of those moments that you were afraid would disappear at any second.

Jay: And it did. And the fact that there's a 50 percent increase works for me in my favor because I've almost never really loved wide angles. I use them, and I can use them well, but I tend to see in terms of telephoto. And if we're looking at a scene together, me and another photographer, he may see what's out to the edges peripherally. I tend to look straight in the center of what I'm looking at and that's where the telephoto shot is.

Chris/Larry: Have you taken advantage of any of the other remarkable features like the astonishingly high speed shutter like a 16,000th of a second? 

Jay: I tried to. I tried to just because I like to see what things look like at that, and I've used it at times, but I never really sat down and said, OK, I'm going to stop a bullet or I'm going to stop water, or something like that. But it's funny you mention it because that is something I always tell people, "you've got a 16,000th on this, you know it's terrific." 

Chris/Larry: What about it's ability to work with flashes like the SB-28dx, it communicates well with that particular flash?

Jay: Yes, I've used that on occasion, but I'll tell you, one of the reasons I like this camera is I almost don't need flash. 

Chris/Larry: Because of the higher speed?

Jay: Well, you guys are probably more technically knowledgeable than I am. By the way, I have an associate here his name is Geoff Green, and if you want to talk technical stuff, he would be the guy to talk to, if I can't help you I'll put him on. I don't know what kind of shutter inside of that. I assume it's not a normal shutter, right?

Chris/Larry: I've read that it's an electronic shutter. 

Jay: Yeah, OK. So I can hold down to a 15th now. I'm an old guy. I don't have the shakes but to hold down to a 15th hand held is pretty wild. So, with the fact that I'm now shooting 200 ASA, and all my life I've only shot 50 or a hundred, tops, and I never liked to push film, I'm now, effectively my shutter speed is always higher. Plus the fact that this sucker amplifies light. I'm sure you're aware of that. 

Chris/Larry: Well, I know that it certainly has the ability to work at different ISO's or ASA speeds.

Jay: No no, I'm not saying that. I'm saying that if you take a photograph at the recommended ISO, in a bad light situation, you will look at it and be amazed at how much detail it pulls out.

Chris/Larry: Opens up the shadow details. The ability of the sensor to see into the shadows. 

Jay: It's astonishing.

Chris/Larry: The digital information is there.

Jay: Yeah. I mean it's there as soon as you shoot it. You look at it and I can close down and I can get a higher shutter speed. It's giving me more than I can see practically. The thing that I love about it is, anybody tells you different is full of shit, what I'm telling you is true. After 45 years in the business, I worry about exposure and I know everybody does. I mean, guys that have been in the business longer than me worry about exposure. So, the joy of being able to check my exposure is just like an incredible luxury. 

Chris/Larry: So you review the images right as you shoot on the LCD screen?

© 2001 Jay Maisel - Man in Train Window

Jay: Right, because if I do a long, long shoot, I might not look so much. But if I'm shooting intermittently and I'm moving around the city and I'm shooting, I'm going to check it almost always. 

Chris/Larry: Do you delete the images that don't make it right there on the spot or do you keep them?

Jay: Well I used to. But I found that that was very time consuming and I was missing the action of it happening in front of me. Deleting the images on a regular basis is almost like getting model releases. It takes up too much God damned time. 

Chris/Larry: What about the histogram display? Do you ever switch to that to see if the tonality is there according to that?

Jay: No. That's what I mean. I'm not a technician and I know I should do those things, but I don't.

Chris/Larry: How do you think in terms of exposure when you're shooting with the D1? Do you expose for the highlights like you would with transparency film?

Jay: I'm exposing for the highlights and the midtones, certainly not exposing for the shadows because if you blow it out there's nothing there to print. The other way around you can play with it.

Chris/Larry: Speaking again of the LCD. Do you ever show your subjects the shots you've just made of them? 

Jay: Well sure. 

Chris/Larry: Just as you shoot them you turn around and show it to them?

Jay: Yes that's the joy of it.

Chris/Larry: It is. What media do you actually store your images on when you're shooting? Do you use like a MicroDrive, or CompactFlash card?

Jay: No, I've never used a MicroDrive. I use like a Lexar CompactFlash card. 

Chris/Larry: Do you carry spare flash cards? 

Jay: God yes. A wonderful thing happened to me today. I found two cards that had been lost for months.

Chris/Larry: Did they have good images on them?

Jay: I haven't seen whether they had any images on them. I haven't had a chance to. I just found them twenty minutes ago. But, in fact, if there's one thing that's a pain in the ass in this business and working with these things, it's like finding a pack of matches.

Chris/Larry: Yeah, they are small.

Jay: I talked to a friend of mine who does use a MicroDrive, and I said are you worried about losing any. He said, "What do you mean by losing any. I only have one and never take it out of the camera. It takes 800 shots. What the hell do I need a second one for?"

Chris/Larry: Right. The one gig are phenomenally large amounts of space to work with. 

Jay: But from what I've heard, and this is again from a non-technical person. There is a chance of trauma to that thing. There's a chance of malfunction. And I've heard of guys not being able to get some pictures off that thing. The MicroDrive.

Chris/Larry: What about the way you shoot? Are you freer in shooting now that you have virtually unlimited film that you carry with you?

Jay: It's funny. At first I was tighter. And I can't explain why except that I felt like I had to delete everything that wasn't good. It's really in a way, it's not unlimited. There's only a finite amount of cards that you have with you. But you usually walk around a job with enormous amounts of film. So that's not a consideration. But now that I don't worry too much about deleting it, I feel much freer to shoot. 

Chris/Larry: What about batteries? Batteries of course are a consumable. 

Jay: And batteries tend to go a lot more if you use that viewer the way I do. When I walk out in the street, just for myself, I usually take a 50mm, a few flash cards, and at least one extra battery. Because I just think the insanity of walking around with a camera that doesn't have a battery and you're dead. You know, it's crazy.

Chris/Larry: Are there any other considerations when shooting digitally? Do you just carry the one 50, which would actually be equivalent to a 75? Just carry the one lens and go looking?

© 2001 Jay Maisel - Silver Bucket - Digital

Jay: Well, my feeling has always been, the more equipment you take, the less pictures you take.

Chris/Larry: Interesting. That's a good philosophy. We've all experienced that, you get wrapped up in equipment.

Jay: Somebody said to me, if you're going out for a week or so, what would you take? At this point I'm really excited about the Nikon 80-400. Cause what you've got there in your hands is a 120-600. You are now hand holding a 600mm lens.

Chris/Larry: With image stabilization.

Jay: Yes, with image stabilization. Not only that, but you can put a half extender on it and you are now hand holding a 180-900mm lens. That's very, very drastic. 

Chris/Larry: At a 15th of a second.

Jay: No, hopefully not, but you may have to because the damn thing is only an F5.6. 

Chris/Larry: Speaking of the new Nikon bodies and the new lenses. Have you experimented with any other Nikon digital cameras, like the CoolPix 990, which is their prosumer camera, or Kodak's bodies, like the 620? 

Jay: No.

Chris/Larry: So you're using strictly Nikon's digital equipment now?

Jay: Strictly. 

Chris/Larry: How many D1's do you have?

Jay: Two.

Chris/Larry: What is the quality of compression that you use in the camera, or do you shoot uncompressed tif?

Jay: I've only shot "Jpeg fine". And I've been very thrilled with that, but I do want to start shooting with the other stuff where you get less images per card, but you get much better quality. When I've talked to people they've said you're not going to notice the difference in the quality unless you go up to a very very big print. And then I hear, I keep on saying I hear, because I don't know, this is very new to me. Then I hear that if I use Genuine Fractals, the program, you'll be able to go up quite high, even without going on a bigger file. 

Chris/Larry: I've read that you have a fully equipped studio as well? Do you have digital backs for any of your studio equipment?

Jay: No. Don't believe everything you read. I don't really work that much with big format. And when I do it would be film.

Chris/Larry: How do your commercial clients react to your working digital? Do you do any commercial work at all any more? 

Jay: I do some, and I've had mixed reactions. In one case I had a client, and this is a while ago, who said that the printer was very unhappy with the stuff. And I realize why it's because he's used to working with CMYK and we're giving him RGB and he's going to have to get used to that.

Chris/Larry: That's very true. In fact a lot of things are going to be impacted by digital. Perhaps, even the definition of what is an original image. What do you feel what an original image is now that you don't have a chrome that's coming right out of the camera? How would you define an original image at this point?

Jay: Anything I give them. I mean, that's the truth because everything is exact, even if you do a duplicate of it.

Chris/Larry: Well, you used to shoot Kodachrome. 

Jay: All the time.

Chris/Larry: Then you shot Fuji Velvia.

Jay: Right.

Chris/Larry: Each of those films had a unique palette.

© 2001 Jay Maisel - DSC_0023 - Digital

Jay: So does the digital.

Chris/Larry: That's my question then. How does the tonal range and sensitivity of these new CCD's effect your ability to previsualize? Do you just intuitively know how it's going to react now? 

Jay: But I'm not previsualizing, that's the thing. I'm able to see what I'm getting. Now, there may be times that I say, that's not the red that's in front of me. And Kodachrome would have gotten it. But then, sometimes I look at Kodachrome and say that's not the blue that I want. It's too damn blue. So, again, this is personal then, over many many years, I think if anybody tells you they're getting exactly what they want, they either have very low standards, or they're not looking. Because you never got exactly what you wanted. The very nature of photography has always been to resemble something, but not to be identical to it. 

Chris/Larry: In fact, flaws like grain, halation, edge effects. are byproducts of film and chemical reactions. And you're leaving all that behind. But I recall some of your images actually used those kinds of flaws for great visual effects.

Jay: You still can do halation kind of things. You can't do grain as much. But, you certainly can do noise.

Chris/Larry: (laugh) Do you miss those old effects? Or are you just looking forward to using new kinds of flaws creatively?

Jay: You know, years ago I worked a lot of crazy things. I used to do push film, I used to do wrong color. I used to do cross processing. But that was in the 50's. And, as I continued to work, I've gotten straighter and straighter and straighter. You know, and being more and more concerned with the integrity of the image in relation to what's there. So I haven't wanted to fool around. Like somebody said to me, well you know you can't double expose on these cameras. I said, so? It's not something that I'm terribly interested in. 

Chris/Larry: Well, as the history of photography has unfolded, we've had things like pictorialism, modernism, the decisive moment. Those have been tied to technological advances in the photographic medium. How do you see digital tools altering the new ways photographers are going to approach the medium? 

Jay: Well, I can't speak for anybody else, but I'll tell you how it's effected me. I've always felt that your photograph should be an extension of your life. In a way, that they should be a journal. And I'm not talking about commercial work. I'm talking about your personal work. And this has enabled me to do that, so much more efficiently. I can shoot without worrying oh God, did I bring enough film. I can go, and this is a biggie, I can go on trips now, and not worry, oh shit I can't get 600 rolls of film on the plane, and I can't put it in luggage because they may zap it. So my life has become easier in terms of traveling because I don't have to worry about the mechanical aspects of preserving the damn stuff. But, on an esthetic level, I think that the Epson prints that I've been doing are so fantastic. And I remember that somebody came over to my place who knows my work and knows that I only use dye transfers and never did Cibachromes or type C's, or things like that. And he picked up an Epson print and said, this blows away dye transfers. And it really does. And of course there are things that you can't get on the film, on the digital flash card, but you can correct that, and get it back to where you wanted it to be. 

Chris/Larry: Like the missing red in Kodachrome that time?

Jay: Yes. For instance that type of thing.

Chris/Larry: You mentioned working with bringing your personal life and your vision together. You have a daughter, Amanda, who's eight years old right now? 

Jay: Yes, seven and a half.

Chris/Larry: You've been photographing her as an ongoing project?

Jay: Absolutely.

Chris/Larry: How does you're working with a digital camera effect your photographing Amanda? 

© 2001 Jay Maisel - DSC_9066 - Digital

Jay: I'll tell you, it's saved my life, because there are so many times that I am compelled to shoot not only by the subject, but by the light because the light is wild, it's weird, it's strange. Because it's not normal, it attracts me, you know because of the rarity of it. I mean there's light bouncing around some crazy way. It's coming off a mirror, off a building, off the sun. And you try exposing for that with film. I've done whole shoots where I've screwed up. I've been way over, or way under. And with this I've been able to save it. I mean I just key in on what I want and from there I don't have to worry about it. That's been a lifesaver. 

Chris/Larry: So in general, how would you say that a digital camera changes the way you shoot. Does it give you a different confidence? Or, how has it effected your vision? 

Jay: I don't know if it affects my vision so much as it affects my confidence to retain the vision that I have always had. For instance the kind of situation where the kid is in the light and it's sunset, and the light is very very bizarre and it's like bouncing all over the place and there's fill where there shouldn't be fill and there's backlighting and all those kinds of things. I just can check it out. I mean, I can see light a lot better than I can shoot it always. You know, some people say that they know what they're going to get. Well I've been doing this a very very long time and I know what I'm going to get, but I don't know if I'm going to get it right. You know what I mean? So the ability to check it, you can't overestimate how important that is. 

Chris/Larry: And as we mentioned, you see that the red is not right, you can go back in Photoshop and fix it. Do you do any of the Photoshop work on your images?

Jay: No, I tell you that about fifteen years ago Kodak had a center up at Camden Maine and I was asked to come there and learn Photoshop, nobody knew what the hell Photoshop was. Why I didn't buy Adobe stock I'm kicking myself. But, during that week, it was myself, and people like Paul Davis who's an illustrator, and Greg Heisler and many many people were there. And we all got wrapped up in this thing. And my wife says, you know, I've know you now for ten years and I've never known you to miss a meal before. And I got so hooked on it, I wasn't going out to eat. And, there's one of the great lies of all times, that computers save time. They don't. 

Chris/Larry: They'll take as much time from your life as you let them.

© 2001 Jay Maisel - DSC_9026 - Digital

Jay: They're time suckers. So, I'm trying not to get involved in the Photoshop. Geoff Green, who I told you about, he works on Photoshop. And if I get on it, he'll never get back on it. In fact, the gag is, he doesn't want me to touch the computer. I had to get a laptop for my own so that I wouldn't screw the computer up.

Chris/Larry: You've stated that the photographers responsible for every square millimeter of the image area.

Jay: Yup.

Chris/Larry: How does the ability of Photoshop to post process and alter images, affect that responsibility? 

Jay: I don't think it affects responsibility. It may affect your behavior.

Chris/Larry: In what way?

Jay: Sometimes I have said to him, can we get that out? And he looks at me and I can hear, yeah I know, but you know, but it's just really irritating so let's get it out. 

Chris/Larry: So it's still within the integrity of the image to remove an element which is a discord element…

Jay: No no, I'm not removing elements, but I will crop. Which I never used to do before. 

Chris/Larry: Ok, so that, say actually moving an object, or eliminating an object would be beyond where you would go.

Jay: Yeah, I don't want to go there and it's not that I think it's unholy, but I just think it's like, let me tell you a story. A long story if you don't mind. I used to work with Buckminster Fuller. He was an editor of Fortune once. He went along with a photographer doing something on the defense line. And they had to actually stop production, which is an enormously difficult thing to get them to do during the war. And the guy had to take a shot. And it's a long story setup, but basically he took one frame. And then Fuller said you're not going to take any others? And he said, no, once you start doing that you get very sloppy. And I've never been influenced by that because I shoot a lot, but I always feel that once you start arbitrarily saying, well lets crop this off, let's move this over, it's not the way I want to play the game. And I think that the essence of it is that I'm really more interested in showing you what's great that's out there, then showing you how terrific I am in constructing things.

Chris/Larry: I remember reading a story about how people used to go through your trash to salvage your 35mm outtakes. That stopped you from throwing any slides out. How has digitally shooting changed that? Obviously you don't have the slides to worry about. Once you bring those images home that don't quiet make it, do they just get deleted? 

Jay: Well, that's a big problem because when I'm out shooting I don't want to spend my time deleting it, well, when I'm back home I don't want to spend my time deleting it either. So we just put it on disks and I just pick the one's I want and the rest of them just stay there. 

Chris/Larry: So you just archive them?

Jay: Yeah. I mean at first I though, oh God, we were going to pile up this crap, I realized that it's not that difficult, I can buy more memory. It's not a big problem. We make double CD's. We back it up. Eventually it comes off the hard drive. So it's not like you have to buy a new hard drive every time. 

Chris/Larry: CD's only cost forty cents now.

Jay: CD's are cheap and they don't take up that much space. And there is a certain laxity mentally about doing this, but I keep on thinking, the advice that I sometimes give to students is that, be aware what you're shooting, and try and have perspective on it, because what you're shooting today might not seem important, but twenty years from now it may be a very very valuable record of something. 

© 2001 Jay Maisel - Time Expired

Chris/Larry: And toward that end, too, one of the fears that people had with digital is that the prints would not be around in the future because of the instability of dies. That fear is subsiding now with the new kinds of printers.

Jay: You mean the Epson. My big thing is I want to get the archival ink Epson's. I want to get one of the big ones. And be able to sell prints that I know will be as good as my dye transfers, or better. 

Chris/Larry: That's the 7500?

Jay: The 9500.

Chris/Larry: Along those lines, I've read that you've also used the 1270 to print some of your images. 

Jay: Oh yeah, that's all we're using so far. 

Chris/Larry: That's what you use in house is a 1270?

Jay: Yeah, they're incredible images. I mean, I can't believe some of them. In fact, there was one that was so good I said let's review the camera data for that image. That's another thing that's very good is that you can get the data back. And, we looked at the data, and the amazing thing was it wasn't even shot at 200, it was shot at 400. 

Chris/Larry: Ah, because that was encoded right with the image. 

Jay: What's encoded with the image, is a pedigree of everything you might want to know about the image. It tells you number one, what exposure compensation you used. Because I'm always using exposure compensation because I want it darker or lighter. It'll tell you what f-stop you used. It'll tell you what shutter speed you used. It'll tell you what lens you used. If you used an 80-200, it will tell you that it was at 137mm. So all this bullshit that you see in photo magazines about the picture that you took twenty years ago, and you and I know nobody knows what the hell they took and they give you data on it. But now you can have actual data. 

Chris/Larry: Do you think that the old wet darkrooms are going to be bypassed? Do you think that people are going to go over entirely to digital output devices? 

Jay: I'd be very surprised if they don't. Especially in color. I mean for people printing in black and white, that's another story because they're doing it and there's a certain joy in making prints. There's really not a lot of joy in making a color print, it's a very different kind of process then making a black and white print, especially if you're working in negative stuff. Now if you had a choice whether you could work in a media where you didn't have to have a darkroom or you did have to have a darkroom, what would you pick? 

Chris/Larry: Well, I'm seriously thinking about selling my own darkroom, (laugh) and have been because I know the feeling of going into a color darkroom. 

Jay: Now the only reason I have not dumped my darkroom altogether, because I have not really worked in a darkroom myself for about 35 years. And I used to love to work in darkrooms but I think that's a stage in your career and then you get over it, because for me, the thing happens at the moment of exposure. What happens afterwards is relatively straightforward if you know what you're doing and you just want to capture the moment that you hope you had captured at the exposure. But the only reason I stayed with the darkroom is, one of my long-term projects is, I want to get back to doing something I did years ago. I used to do a lot of photograms. And those may need to be done in a darkroom. Otherwise I think I would dump the darkroom.

Chris/Larry: Many years ago, in fact, you worked under the painter Joseph Hirsch, you studied painting at Cooper Union. You received a degree in painting in fact from Yale where you studied with Joseph Albers. Have you ever wanted to sit down with a digital stylus and paint digitally using any of the natural media painting programs or Photoshop itself?

Jay: That's what I was doing up in Camden. I wasn't even touching photographs. I was just playing with the ability of the computer to do things in color. In fact the guys who had worked on Photoshop, "to give you an idea about how technical I am", the guys who had worked on the program were going around watching what we were doing and they came to me and they said, how'd you do that? I said, I had no idea. Well, could you do it again? About the same chance of, you know, sixty monkeys writing the Encyclopedia Britannica. Sooner or later I'll get it again. I said why do you ask? He said I've never seen that before. And so, my structure and working is a hell of a lot less logical and more intuitive than computers demand. But the thing I liked about computers is that it gives you the chance, when you come to the fork in the road, you can take both forks.

© 2001 Jay Maisel - Two Men at Coffee Shop

Chris/Larry: Right, you can always go back again.

Jay: Right, that's the beauty of it.

Chris/Larry: Have you experimented with any painterly affects that could alter your photographic images in color and form?

Jay: Nope, I don't want to do that at all. I really want to be stimulated by what's out there. I don't want to do tableaus of things that I have in my head. I mean if I have a job to shoot and someone wants me to light it in a very special way that's one thing. But what I'm really interested in are the fantastic things that happen out there you're not really aware of. 

Chris/Larry: How about something like stitching together various digital images into a panoramic format. Have you ever done that where you decided to carry a greater space than fits in the frame and shot several frames side by side and then stitched them digitally?

Jay: In 1974 I started shooting panoramic cameras. And I loved shooting panoramic cameras. That is one of the things I think I'll be going back to film on, shooting panoramic. I have not tried to stitch anything together because whenever I wanted to do it I could do it in one shot. But, I could do something now that I couldn't do before. I have an image that's 40 inches high and 180 inches long. That's fifteen feet by three and a half feet. And it's three dye transfers that are keyed together. And the reason it's in three pieces is that they can't make a dye transfer that big. But now, I can make that thing in one piece of paper, which is fantastic. 

Chris/Larry: So, with all these changes coming at us. What do you see as the future of photography, both commercially, and as a continuing evolving and developing art form? 

Jay: Well I think technically, film ain't gonna die. I mean there are too many people who really enjoy the quality of film and the wide-angle thing. But I just can't believe that people aren't going to switch over to digital on a professional level. It's too rewarding not to. I won't get on Photoshop. I won't get on a computer. But there are a lot of people who really love doing that kind of thing and it gives them a chance to have their own darkroom, on a desktop, and get quality that is superior to what they can get from anybody else. In an hour or to, or in a few minutes, if they're really good at it. And they don't have to go out of the house. Everything is in their house. And I think as the printers get used to the RGB and the CMYK won't be a problem in that and as, do you know Nikon's new camera? Do you know anything about that?

Chris/Larry: I've read about it on their web site. 

Jay: So that, the existing one and a half megabytes that you get, compressed, that opens up to seven and a half, is going to be replaced by eighteen megabytes. It's going to be incredible.

Chris/Larry: I think it's a 5.47 megapixel camera so it's quite a jump up from what you've been using.

Jay: Oh yeah. And Epson, who has been making the 1270 that is really quite incredible, and I think the quality is so superb. I can't get over the combination. It's great. They're changing from the 1270, which is 1440 dpi, the 1280, which is going to be 2880 dpi. So I've got a camera that is going to be twice as good in terms of quality. And a printer that going to be twice as good in terms of quality. I don't know if I can stand this. (laugh)

Chris/Larry: Have you seen a movement among your peers to adopt digital cameras?

Jay: Oh yeah. Not all of them, but you know, some of them. I think the factor that scares a lot of them is the adaptation of it by their clients, you know. And here's why I think the digital thing is going to happen, and even though there's a lot of photographers don't want it to happen. I've had photographers say to me, well you know, they're going to be looking over your shoulder as you shoot. And I say, great. Then they won't say to you, "that's not what I had in mind" when they see the film. It becomes more of a contemporaneous relationship instead of an adversarial relationship. 

© 2001 Jay Maisel - Fog - Digital

Chris/Larry: The ultimate in Polaroids.

Jay: Oh yeah, that's the beauty. No more money on Polaroids.

Chris/Larry: And you'll be able to complete a job, at that time.

Jay: Well I did this one big job, the client and I had worked on the thing together and it was a very complicated thing with many many people in it, and all kinds of strange lighting. And he was able to say that's it, you don't have to work anymore on that, let's move onto the next one. We normally would just overshoot like crazy to make sure we had it. But we were able to get what we wanted, know that we had it, and move on. And if it wasn't right, we could just correct it right there instead of thinking when the whole thing was finished, "Oh God, do you know what we should have done?"

Chris/Larry: Right, so you have the ability to get the client to sign off and understand what he's going to get before the shoot is even over. 

Jay: Right.

Chris/Larry: What kind of advice would you give to photographers that are just starting out now? What should they study in school? How should they approach the medium now that digital is becoming so strong? 

Jay: Well, my feelings always been, when you're talking about studying, that studying photography is kind of dopey. You know. You should study the basic arts. I'm talking about my own experience, obviously. But you should study as much visual art as you can. The photography should come secondary because the other thing is the basis for it. I mean, if you don't know what you're doing visually, it doesn't matter what you know about a camera. And, basically cameras ain't brain surgery. They're easy to pick up. They're easy to learn about. I'm not a good technician. I still can take pictures. But what I think is important for them is to have an awareness of visual, I'm trying to think of a word for it, of a visual protocol. To know what works visually whether it's in a camera, a painting, a piece of sculpture, landscape, architecture, pottery, or anything. 

Chris/Larry: So, the visual protocol. Is that something that is more aligned with one's own inner vision and sensibility, rather than something that can be taught? 

Jay: That's an interesting question. One would hope that if you're taught to bring out your inner vision. But I think it has to do with your influences I mean. What were your influences as you were studying and learning. Were your influences, you know, Norman Rockwell? Which ain't bad, but, or was it Monet? Or was it Mondrian? You know. What was it? Were you looking at great vases? Do you have an idea what Persian carpets are like? I'm quoting myself, so forgive me if it sounds pedantic. But, our history of photography didn't start with the daguerreotype. It started with cave painting. And since the cave paintings, art has not moved forward, it's just changed. It has not gotten better, it's just gotten different.

Chris/Larry: What about the Internet and the ability for photographers to show their work around the world? Do you see that as having an effect on the way in which artists and photographers will be able to market and to exhibit their work?

© 2001 Jay Maisel - Blue Wall and Doves

Jay: I think that it certainly has a chance but the thing that has always scared all of us is loosing the stuff to somebody who is less than scrupulous about it. 

Chris/Larry: Right. Digital images are very easy to copy.

Jay: Oh boy.

Chris/Larry: And there are few really convenient and effective means of copy protection. It seems like convenience and effectiveness are at opposite ends of the spectrum at this point. But do you see that there is an ability for an artist to communicate with the audience that they have in a new way because of the Internet?

Jay: Well I just think that there are a lot of openings there. I mean you can start getting into stop action stuff if you want. You can create your own videos if you want. I mean there's so many things you can do. As a still photographer it just gives you a different kind of venue. It gives you a chance to put something up without making a big investment. I mean, it becomes a semi publishing adventure. 

Chris/Larry: When you began, you just hit the streets and you walked around and you showed art directors what you did. Many years ago there was greater accessibility of just showing your portfolio.

Jay: Oh God yes.

Chris/Larry: Do you think that you have any advice for people who need to reach that same audience? Is the Web an effective way to do that?

Jay: Well, I don't think you can walk around anymore. That's the problem. I think if you try to walk into somebody's office, the best thing you're going to have is a drop off. It's hard to meet people on that basis because everybody's so busy and they don't have time to see another damn photographer, and they don't really want to see anybody, you know. If something's on the perspective of their vision catches their eye, they'll go for it. And the perspective of their vision is usually what's in magazines already or maybe something they see on the Internet. But they don't want to go through portfolios. You know, it's a drag for them, I mean. Even years ago I used to have to kick and bite and scream to get them to sit down and look at a carousel reel. 

Chris/Larry: So, now it's even more difficult?

Jay: On a personal level, yes. I think the Internet might very well be a good way to do it. I mean, you can put your whole portfolio on a CD and send it to a guy, you can't make them look though. That's still the difficulty.

Chris/Larry: Well your web site has images and access to your imagery. Have you found your web site a successful means of showing and selling your work?

© 2001 Jay Maisel - Light Through Window - Digital

Jay: I think my web site stinks. And I haven't really worked on it enough. I mean, there are people who like it and for that I'm very grateful. But I don't think it's full and comprehensive as it should be and it's my fault, it's nobody else's. We haven't gotten a lot of work off of it. We've gotten inquires and we've gotten compliments and things, but I haven't found it a vehicle for generating a lot of income.

Chris/Larry: Do you have any plans in the near term to update it? 

Jay: Oh certainly. I also have plans to get my house in order. (laugh) 

Jay: You know I don't know if I made it clear but one of the things that I wanted to say, I guess I did, but, I'm able to shoot more easily now in tricky situations. And I'm able to walk around and shoot at night. And I haven't shot at night in forty years. And now I can shoot at night. I'll give you an example, a couple of months ago there was a big storm, and the sky was kind of glowing because of the snow from the city. I could hand hold it and shoot it. Cause I know I wouldn't go and get a tripod. I'm too fuckin' lazy. And we made a print of that for the show down in PMA. 

© 2001 Jay Maisel - Window Washer

Chris/Larry: One of the images that influenced me the most, and I guess it was about thirty years ago, was a picture of a silhouette of a window washer washing the window at an airport, a New York airport.

Jay: No, Bogota Columbia airport.

Chris/Larry: With a backlight, with a nice sun behind it.

Jay: Yes.

Chris/Larry: How would you have approached that same shot today digitally? 

Jay: The same way. No difference what so ever. I mean the digital stuff helps you to shoot in situations that are tougher but your visual handle that you have on it remains the same. The only thing that changes is that the subject might becomes more accessible to you. 

Chris/Larry: I was just thinking. The next picture we need to see of you is one of you lying on the floor of your studio covered with CompactFlash cards. 

Jay: (laugh) I can't afford that!


All Images on this Page © 2001-2002 Jay Maisel 
Portrait of Jay © 2001-2002 Jay Maisel/Geoff Green
Contents of the Interview © 2001-2002 Chris Maher and Larry Berman
Images and text are protected under United States and International copyright laws and may not be reproduced, stored, or manipulated without written permission of the authors.

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