When I was up in New York a couple of weekends ago to take that workshop from Lou Manna, I got the incredible opportunity to spend the day before shooting the streets of New York with a true living legend; Jay Maisel.
I’ll describe it to you the same way I described it to my wife; I told her â¦”it was like spending the day in a documentary.” Each corner we turned, he had another fascinating story. Each street we walked, there was another photography lesson, or just a lesson about life. He shared stories of old New York, people he knew, people he shot, advice he had been given, jobs he’d taken, and I did my best to pick up on every little nugget he threw out.
We were barely out of his building when he pointed out my first mistake. We were going out to shoot the people of New York, and Jay had this very small, inconspicuous lens. I, on the otherhand, had a large fast lens with an even larger lens hood. Jay asked me, “Which is going to be more intimidating to people on the street? Your camera or mine?”
He then added a colorful analogy that clearly explained the correlation between the time it takes a New Yorker to grab your camera and (ahem) shove it in an area where things were designed to exit, and the size of the lens you’re pointing at them. I immediately got the point, but all I could do was take off the lens hood and turn it around, so it didn’t extend nearly as far. We hadn’t even left the building, and I already knew I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
I had made up my mind that even though we were specifically wandering around New York just to shoot, for the sheer fun of shooting, I was going to listen more than shoot, and I’m so glad I did. He shared so much as we walked, mostly about taking the time to really see what’s around you. Jay is a master at finding shots where it seems there are none. He looks at everything. He sees things on a street, he sees shots, he sees opportunity, he sees the light, he sees the color, he sees shape in ways that I’ll just never see. He would constantly stop and point out things, or take a reference shot of an area he’d want to come back and shoot when he can focus on making the shot.
If you ever get to the point that you think “it’s about the camera,” you should spend a day with Jay. He could make magic with a Kodak disposable camera. He really challenges you to slow down. To look around. To explore an area and really see what’s happening around you. He would point out scenes, moments in time, interaction between couples; parents and their kids, or a light bouncing up from a book being read by a woman reading silently in the park that I would have just walked right by and missed.
He captured fascinating shots during our Subway ride; then from the 2nd story window of a Whole Foods market; he shot though a department store window, and he shot people standing right beside him, who will never know their photo had even been taken. He was stealthy when he wanted to be, but he could also effortlessly get people to pose and do basically whatever he wanted them to, when he wanted to “make a shot.” Nobody ever turned him down.
This has very little to do with photography, but everything to do with the social aspects of “Photo Strolling” but at one point during the day we’re walking down 5th Ave. and I look up and was shocked to see a Garrett Popcorn Shop (the famous Garrett’s from Chicago; the same one I’ve written about here on the blog, and apparently they’ve opened a 5th Ave. store). I stop and tell Jay about how I found Garrett’s, and I took him inside to get some popcorn. Jay’s not a terribly big popcorn lover, but I dragged him in assuring him this not like any popcorn he had ever had. This was popcorn on a whole ‘nuther level.
I bought him a bag of their Carmel with Cashews, and we stepped out into the street and started munching. Jay just about lost his mind over this popcorn, and for the next 20 minutes, we both put up our cameras and just munched, and laughed and talked. It wasn’t photography, but it sure was fun. Not surprisingly, people who knew Jay would come rushing up to him on the street, “Jay! Jay” and everyone he’d meet he’d tell them—“you gotta try this popcorn!” It kind of became our “thing” for the day, and as soon as I got back home I sent him a two-gallon can of Garrett’s best.
Later in the day, Jay switched to a larger lens (a 70-200mm 2.8 VR), and I was stuck with my 24-70mm, and groused that I didn’t have “The right lens.” It wasn’t an hour or two later, that Jay looked at me and said, “Ya know, I really don’t have the right lens to get the shot I want here.” I just had to smile, happy in the knowledge that “it’s not just me.”
The Saturday I happened to be up there, Jay’s friend Seth Resnick was teaching his D65 seminar in New York, so Jay and I crashed his class and watched him teach Lightroom for a while (Seth’s a terrific teacher, and his workshop looked so great I wish I could have stayed longer). Seth introduced Jay to the class as simply, “God.”
We eventually wound up making our way back to Jay’s studio, where we shared the popcorn story with his lovely wife Linda, and laughed about some of the things we saw, and people we met along the way.
What a day. Although Jay has been teaching for me at Photoshop World for the past few years, this is the first time I’ve really gotten a chance to spend some time with him, and it was even better, more fascinating, and more fun than even I had imagined (in Orlando, my buddy Marvin and I sat in Jay’s “Light, Gesture, and Color Class” and we left just speechless). Jay is amazing. He’s hilarious, he’s lovable, he’s deep, he’s thoughtful, reflective, sharp as a tack, and yet forgetful as anything, and he’s so full of life, and he has so much go give, it just makes you glad there are still guys like Jay out there. Jay’s work makes you shake your head in wonder, and Jay the photographer makes you smile inside and out. Jay is Jay. :)
Thanks Jay, for giving me a very special day I’ll never forget.