It’s Not About The F-Stop [Review]
I was a fan of Jay Maisel long before I ever knew who he was or what he did for a living. I was in high school and was over at a friend’s house listening to records. My friend had amazing taste in music and introduced me to progressive rock bands like Yes, King Crimson, The Moody Blues and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. He also loved jazz and during one of our listening sessions, asked me if I’d ever heard of Miles Davis. After I told him I hadn’t, he put on Kind of Blue and handed me the sleeve. On the cover is a simple shot of Miles playing his horn. It’s grainy, contrasty and I remember looking at it and thinking “now THAT is a jazz musician.” I didn’t know it at the time, and wouldn’t until years later, but that photograph of Miles was taken by Jay Maisel.
He’s been shooting since 1954 and over his sixty-year career has created a body of work that has earned him the respect and admiration of his contemporaries as well as a following of legions of photographers hoping to learn from his experience. For years, Maisel opened up his home and studio—the massive Germania bank building in New York’s Bowery District—for intense week-long, 13-hour-a-day workshops, where students learned the art and craft of photography from one of its masters.
In 2014 Maisel released Light, Gesture, and Color which, unlike his previous photo books, Jay Maisel’s New York and A Tribute, was meant to offer readers a lifetime of experience, insights and passion into the craft of making pictures, condensed into a series of anecdotes as only Jay can tell them. In April of 2015, he released It’s Not About the F-Stop, which continues the style of his previous book. Despite the terrific photography, it’s exactly this writing style that may be off-putting for some, especially those looking for more of a photographic how-to. The book lacks a clear direction, whether in terms of intended audience or desired effect. It’s not a photo book per se, at least not in the same way as something like Salgado’s Genesis is. Nor does it dive as deeply into the ephemera or existential side of photography as the superb Road to Seeing by Dan Winters. The style of this book feels more like the director’s commentary on a DVD, with Jay flipping through an archive of his work and recounting some of the first stories that come to mind. That’s not a bad thing—not at all. In fact, there’s a lot of great advice mixed in with Jay’s memories (not to mention the fantastic photography). How could there not be? He’s created an astounding body of work over his sixty-year career.
Overall, however, it just leaves me wondering who the book is for—other than die-hard fans—because it doesn’t commit strongly enough one way or another. Even the writing itself feels occasionally uneven. Expletives, for example, are masked with gibberish characters, which ends up feeling like a dilution of the direct, occasionally off-color character of Jay’s personality. People buying this book are likely buying it because they know Jay, or at least know of him. When he says “don’t fuck it up,” that’s exactly what it means, not “screw”, not “mess” and certainly not “f*¢%.” In an effort to protect the reader, this censoring ends up pulling focus from the narrative, forcing the reader to think about the expletives and to have an to opinion about them, rather than simply letting them flow across the page as they would from Jay in conversation. (My On Taking Pictures co-host, Bill Wadman, was taking portraits of Jay at his home in The Bank and, when changing lenses, set his 35mm on the the table next to him. Apparently, this was a little too close to the edge for Jay’s liking, who stopped mid-sentence, smiled wryly and quipped, “Wow, Wadman, you really are a fucking asshole.” That’s Jay.)
Niggles aside, there’s no disputing that Jay Maisel is a master of his craft, and with more than a half-century of making pictures behind him, is still as inquisitive and interested in the process as he ever was—and he’s got the portfolio to back it up. Equal to his passion towards his own photography is his delight in seeing that passion develop in others. While his frank, no-nonsense approach is either going to click with readers or it won’t, one of the things he does beautifully with this book is encourage photographers to be present in their own process, whatever that means. For me the two big takeaways of It’s Not About the F-Stop are: you have to keep shooting and the muse rewards the faithful. Put in the time, notice the details, pay attention to the light and you just may strike gold.
I would like to thank the folks at KelbyOne for providing me with a copy of It’s Not About the F-Stop for this review.