It's About The Work: Jay Maisel [Q&A]

He recently turned 80 years old and has more than 55 years of professional shooting under his belt. Jay Maisel is recognized as one of the top natural-light photographers in the world. Having lived in New York his entire life, the city is in his blood and he has used the wonderful backdrop of Manhattan to become a master of street photography. When you look at one of Jay Maisel’s photographs you don’t just see a subject and a background. Each photograph is a mini-masterclass in composition and how to capture the subtle nuances of light playing against shadow.

“You see shape, and how the light hits things, how the color changes from one end of the photo to the other, and how movement affects the mood of the photo.” -Jay Maisel

His vision and passion for his craft have inspired countless photographers, including Joe McNally and Scott Kelby. Recently, I had the pleasure of asking Jay a few questions about photography and his photographic journey . Here’s what he had to say:

F&B: Do you think digital cameras have changed the aesthetics of photography, compared to shooting film? Do you “see” differently shooting in digital?

No, but it opens up doors that I couldn’t enter before because of the high ISOs that are available now.

F&B: You’ve said that a lot of photographers are not aware of their capacities and how good they are and that the things that hold them back are sometimes very simple. What are some of the things you see as holding good photographers back and how do they move beyond them?

I don’t remember saying that, but I will address it. I’ve seen really good photographers get sucked into thinking their commercial work is their life. What I mean is that they do not do enough personal work. If you don’t listen to your inner voice, you will be voicing what other people motivate you to do. You’ve got to reveal yourself to yourself.

F&B: How has your background in painting and fine art affected the way you portray or capture light and shadow in your photographs?

It’s impossible to overestimate how important the background in fine art and painting is. It’s not just light and shadow; It’s a whole awareness of our visual heritage going back 50,000 years.

F&B: One of the reasons you’ve said you teach workshops is because you learn from students as much as you teach. What has been the most profound or unexpected lesson you’ve learned from a student?

I haven’t learned from just one student – I’ve seen many students substantially change and improve their work through persistence. This has consistently reinforced me in the awareness that it’s not about talent – it’s about work.

F&B: You’ve lived in New York your entire life and have lived in your home for nearly half a century. In what ways has New York, both the people and places, helped to shape and define your vision as a photographer?

New York is a shooting gallery. Somebody said years ago that “if you tire of London, you tire of life.” I would apply that to New York. I think it’s the toughest place in the world to shoot, the most challenging, and consequently, the most rewarding. Not a day goes by that I’m not constantly delighted with New York. The people are challenging, the structures are changing constantly, and the dynamics of street photography are intense.

F&B: Elliott Erwitt has said that taking pictures is not about thinking, but rather it’s about discovery. What has photography allowed you to discover, both personally and professionally?

The world.


Jay Maisel’s earlier background is actually in painting rather than photography. He went to a high school that emphasized fine arts and that is what ignited his passion. When he graduated he was lucky enough to get a scholarship to study painting with Joseph Hirsch, who, although he was a painter, he thought and taught in photographic terms. He was always asking questions of Maisel about light: Where it was coming from? What is the subject? What is its worth? How do you draw that out?

After that year of studying, Maisel got into Cooper Union and Yale where he studied painting, drawing and 3-D design. He says at Yale they wouldn’t let him into the photography studio because that wasn’t his course of study. He was able to get in, thanks to a helpful night watchman and he worked in the darkroom every night. There, he had found something that he loved.

That love of photography did not alter his school plans, though. He did not decide to become a photographer until he had gotten his degree in painting. He says it was more of a cowardly decision, that he was not confident in his abilities as a painter to make a living. He started doing commercial work in the beginning doing jobs for Dance magazine and album covers for Columbia Records. One of the more famous covers he did was Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

Coming from an artist’s background and going straight into commercial work where every job is assigned might seem like a difficult jump to make. Maisel has always made a point, though, to shoot pictures for himself, something he stresses in the workshops he teaches in the gorgeous bank building that has been his home and studio since he purchased it in 1964. Whatever job he was on he would walk around looking for things that were interesting to him. At times, these were even the shots the clients would pick. The pressure of shooting commercially eventually lead Jay to retire from it. Now that he only shoots for himself, you rarely see him without a camera in his hands. I think shooting photographs is like breathing to him. Photography is not something he does, but rather something he is. Thankfully, we are all able to share in his journey and his vision.

We would like to thank Jay for taking the time to answer a few of our questions. All images © Jay Maisel and used with permission.


Photographs by Jay Maisel

All images © Jay Maisel and used with permission. Portrait of Jay Maisel, courtesy of Bill Wadman

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