Photography legend Jay Maisel (left) with the author, Terry Tinkess at Photo Plus Expo 2019 at the Javitts Center New York City.
I just finished watching Jay Myself for the second time, and each time I am left with a flood of conflicting emotions.
I really wanted to see this film because Jay Maisel has been one of my idols since I first began to take photography seriously. I have had the honour of actually meeting, speaking with and shaking the hand of the man on one occasion, and I told him that in the next life I hoped we would have the opportunity to be friends. I have read, watched and listened to everything I could find on him and incorporate much of his philosophy into my teaching. He is the real deal, a larger than life personna who also behaves like a “normal” person.
The film, a documentary created by photographer Stephen Wilkes captures the end of an era. Maisel, a New York curmudgeon if there ever was one, has been capturing the world with his camera for more than 60 years, but for most of the past five decades he has been synonymous with “The Bank”, a 36,000 square foot, six-story former bank located at the corner or Spring and Bowery in Manhattan. Maisel purchased the building for about $100,000, but sold it for $55 million when he was no longer able to afford the cost of maintaining it. He moved out in February of 2016.
Great story, right? He made out like a bandit, and you might be left feeling a little bit envious (jealous) at his good fortune, but he was so closely connected with his home that no amount of money could compensate for what he had to give up. A new, shiny mechanical heart can keep you alive, but it can’t compare to the living, beating organ that has resided in your chest since before the day you were born. It’s no where near the same.
The one hour and 19 minute documentary takes you through the five months between when Maisel agreed to sell and when he and his parade of belongings vacated the premises. (They estimated 35 truck loads). It is a collection of archival footage of Maisel as a young man, interviews with the photographer/director Wilkes who began his relationship as a young apprentice 38 years earlier, and interviews with people who have known or been influenced by him over the past half-century. Some of the more poignant passages involve Maisel’s wife Linda (La) and his daughter Amanda. They speak as much of the man as the others do of the artist.
I won’t give away the entire story except to say that it is really a trip through the cluttered building that is a physical representation of Maisel’s mind (”a troubled mind,” according to Maisel.) Every frame contains a nugget to be greedily hoarded away.
While Maisel says that he looks at the move as a new adventure, you don’t need to be a genius to realise the great sorrow it brings to him, and that by allowing this painful part of his life to be chronicled, he is doing what so many others credit him with: doing for others. It hurts, but he sees the benefit.
I watched the film and frequently had a tear in my eye, not only because it is difficult not to have affection and respect for the man, but also because I, like many, don’t enjoy the sudden realisation that the list we created with all the things we plan on doing will almost certainly never be completed. I don’t know who said “Tomorrow is promised but to no one,” but it is incredibly humbling to realise that yeah, that applies to me too. I have a “normal” list, but I can only imaging what it felt like for Maisel, who had 36,000 square feet of former projects, projects in progress and projects he planned to do.Wilkes, possibly because of his own connection to Maisel and the Bank (”the greatest teacher I ever had”), captures this perfectly. I only wish it was longer.
Jay Myself is showing in limited release, mainly in the US at this time. but it was made available on iTunes on September 17. At the present time it is only on the US version of iTunes, which meant I had to jump through multiple hoops to purchase a copy. It is well worth the effort. You can find more information at jay myself.com. To find out more about Jay Maisel, visit his website at jaymaisel.com (Maisel likes things simple; as he stated during his talk last year at Photo Plus, “If it has more than one button, I’m fucked!”
We all have heroes or idols or what ever you want to call them, people we respect, people we try to emulate and learn from. Only too often we discover that the image and the person are not the same thing, and that our heroes have feet of clay. I am pleased that Maisel, for all his ability, seems to be the real thing. I don’t think he has it in him to be otherwise, I look forward to the next life and only hope the cigar smoke will lead me to a person worth following.