20090318_maisel_kelby_blogsm
© 2007 Photo by Jeff Schewe

When I was a kid, there was this sportswriter named Jimmy Cannon. He was a cut above, he wrote universally appealing stuff. Sports in a larger sense. I can’t remember specific things he wrote, but I always felt like he made me think. He found a way to ramble on about anything he wished to explore by naming some of his columns, “Nobody asked, me but…”

I want to use that format and protocol for this piece – here we go then…

Nobody Asked Me, But…
When I was starting out (okay, 55 years ago) I showed my work to an art director named Bob Cato. He went thru my folio carefully, slowly, closed the book and said, “You walk too fast.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. At first I had no idea what the hell he was talking about, but over the years it has become clear. It’s about the intimacy of walking.

Think of it this way… In the 20th century some of the most memorable images were taken from the moon, jets, small planes, and helicopters, and each showed us the world a bit more intimately from points of view we never experienced before. As we got closer to the surface of the earth we began to see more evidence of mankind. We can find exciting examples of images shot from boats, trains, cars, etc., all of which are closer to the subjects and begin to be more than studies or patterns. It is, however, not as intimate, since after all, you’re still in a moving vehicle. It is not until you start walking that you begin to see details of life, where insights, evaluations, and relationships come to you. So finally, I began to understand what Cato said. I was walking too fast. I had confused covering ground with comprehension. When we shoot we should savor what goes on in front of us, allow things to develop, anticipate things, not be in such a hurry to move on to see how much more we can see quickly and superficially. It’s all there, if we take our time and look, things have a way of happening in front of you. Standing still is also a good way of covering things; just let the world come to you. To paraphrase an old clich© – Don’t do something, just stand there. Be patient.

Soon after seeing Bob Cato, I went up to a photo magazine and the picture editor (Patricia Caulfield) looked at my folio like she was thumbing through a phone book – I was incensed, and thought, “If you were a guy I’d punch you out!” She slammed the book shut and said, “How would you like a spread in the magazine?” I was stunned, and I learned that people in the business who know pictures don’t need to ruminate or salivate over them. They know, they know quickly and they don’t gush over you when they like the work.

…Last week I went to an opening of an Eddie Adams exhibit. It was of course amazing. I was so caught up in the moment it never occurred to me to take a picture of three other photographer friends of Eddie’s who were in attendance.

Nick Ut, Bill Epperidge, and John Filo took three of the most iconic images of the 20th century.

Nick did the photo of the young Vietnamese girl running from a napalm attack, Bill Epperidge photographed Robert F. Kennedy after the shooting by Sirhan Sirhan, and John Filo captured the girl leaning over the slain student at Kent State.

It was humbling just to be in the same room with these three guys. It also reminded me of the power and emotional impact of a still photo. While watching the inauguration of President Obama I was taken by an image that stayed on the screen for a few moments. In the midst of all this film, this one image didn’t move, turn, or change and I realized it was a still image inserted into the broadcast – I was relieved and delighted that I had a moment to let it act upon me and I thought that powerful as film may be, it acts as a continuum, while the still image is a commitment – a final unaltered (we hope) statement of reality, and as such has enormous power, even more than film.

To illustrate consider this: Eddie’s image of the street execution of the Vietcong, Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize winning image, and even the man in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square were also covered by film camera crews. However, it is the still photo that impresses and stays with us long after the moving image has faded. Commitment to a moment gives that impact. There is none of the diffusion of time that motion pictures deal with.

…I’ve taught over a hundred weeklong workshops. Part of why I do them is that it keeps me sharp. I can’t be telling people what to do with out learning something myself. I evolve as I teach, and the things I ask students to do has changed and become simplified over the years. Today one of the things I try to get across to a class is so simple, but for some it’s hard to grasp. It is so obvious and yet not easy to do. I demand that they enjoy themselves and my advice is just move on to something else if that’s not happening. After all the whole point of this is to have fun. If you ain’t enjoying it why bother? I explain to them that if they’re not excited by what they’re shooting I’ll know and so will everyone else. I even wrote this poem to make the point:

If it doesn’t excite you,
This thing that you see,
Why in the world,
Would it excite me?

…Going back to moving vehicles, last month I went to a monthly salon showing in New York and saw work by George Steinmetz. How I had managed to avoid seeing his work before, I don’t know. But it was a revelation to look at the world from an intimate, literally hands-on flying machine – great stuff – George Steinmetz – and if you like this kind of thing look up not only George, but Maxwell Mackenzie, who risks life and limb (also in a plane you wear) to get amazing images.

…As long as I’m rambling – I thought of someone who doesn’t fly, stays close to home and is an insightful photographer. She shoots intimate, marvelous pictures of her mother, father, husband, and children. Her name is Elinor Carucci – a great example of perception close to home where most of us often fail to look.

…In one of the first workshops here at the bank building I had a student named Al Vinjamur. He brought in some amazing pictures at the outset. At the end of the class he said to me – “I’ve gone swimming with sharks and alligators, crept up on grizzly bears and risked everything for photos, but I’ve never been as profoundly uncomfortable and scared until I took your class and you made me shoot people – thanks.”

…Speaking of failing, that’s what teaching is all about – opening doors and getting people to walk thru them even at the risk of failing.

…Jasper Johns spoke of failure as a form of progress. It’s really about adventure and mystery.

Lucile Clifton said, “If you’re open to mystery it will come, and if you’re not, why should it?”

Thanks to Scott for letting me write this week’s guest blog. Look forward to seeing everyone next week in Boston for Photoshop World.

…Have fun! Have a ball, in fact have two.

Jay Maisel
jaymaisel.com