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Q&A: Photographers Jay Maisel And Stephen Wilkes On Their New Documentary And The Shots They Missed

When photographer Jay Maisel made the tough, but financially inevitable, decision to sell The Bank, his 35,000 square foot studio and home on Manhattan’s Bowery, Stephen Wilkes knew he had to commit its final days to film. The result is “Jay Myself,” a brisk documentary tour of Maisel’s past captured through the packing up of The Bank – an actual former bank building complete with vault – and its 72 rooms brimming with prints, negatives and found objects that the artist collected over his nearly-50-year residency. Wilkes, an artist and photographer himself, had an intimate connection to his subject.

In the 1970s, Wilkes, then a college junior, came to intern for Maisel, arriving at The Bank to find Maisel half-dressed and nursing an ashy cigar. Maisel complimented the young photographer’s portfolio with an expletive-intensified superlative, and they’ve been close ever since.

In conversation, the pair veer easily and irretrievably into tall tales of their days on assignment. (Maisel, 88, tends to remember the details – a disgruntled cigarette ad model, a cumbersome floating dock used to get a shot – and is not shy about correcting his former protege.) Both men share a childlike verve for observation that animates “Jay Myself,” which premieres July 31 at New York’s Film Forum. In turning the camera on his mentor, Wilkes delivers a celebration of Maisel’s craft and an elegy for the end of a New York era when artists had dominion over the Lower East Side.

The Forward’s PJ Grisar spoke to Wilkes and Maisel over the phone. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

GRISAR: Stephen, this is your directorial debut. I wonder why you decided to document the end of The Bank in this medium rather than in still photos?

Stephen Wilkes

Stephen Wilkes Image by Greg Gorman

WILKES: I really did both. I made an effort to photograph a lot of the rooms and objects. I was doing it simultaneously. But as much as my photographs were capturing something, what I really wanted to capture was the essence of Jay and to do that I really wanted to taken you through the building and through every floor, every level of his mind in a way. What The Bank represented was so unique and when Jay called me and said “I’m gonna sell it,” I thought this is an opportunity to tell Jay’s story through this epic move that was about to take place.

How did Stephen convince you, Jay? You seem a bit resistant in the film.

Jay Maisel

Jay Maisel Image by Stephen Denton

MAISEL: You’re wondering how he convinced me? He has the persistence of Chinese water torture.

Was making the film cathartic? There’s a part towards the end of the movie where Jay speaks about how going out and shooting when his father was sick helped him to feel better. I wonder if this endeavor might have done the same for both of you?

MAISEL: For me, it drove me nuts. It was a very traumatic experience. Without Stephen there at all it would have been horribly traumatic. With Stephen, it added an element of humor and chaos and so it became more complicated. But it gave me a way to vent, I was able to tease the guy who was shooting, who I liked very much, but he was always up my nose. It was an interesting experience and I always like new experiences. I never thought [Stephen would] do something so good. I didn’t doubt his ability, I just didn’t think it was there. He did a funny, thoughtful, serious, comic, crazy thing. At this point I’ve seen it three times and I like it each time I see it. But then, I’m an egomaniac anyway.

WILKES: What I tapped into when Jay started to talk about his father was that his act of photographing was the ultimate escape. That was actually the way Jay was managing through this entire project. The further along he got into the move, the more he kept shooting.

I wonder how each of you thinks of film as an art form as it relates to photography. So much of both of your works’ power lies in its sense of motion while standing still. What changes when things are actually moving?

MAISEL: I love film. I watch at least one film every day, but I don’t want to get too involved in the analytics of it ‘cause I won’t enjoy it. There are times when I say “Oh, that’s a stupid angle.” I don’t want to be that way. I’d rather sit and enjoy it. In my work I’m not at all involved in continuity, and as a matter of fact, one of the big things I talk about with students is that the still photograph is a commitment to one moment. It doesn’t have anything to do with continuum or time. It is a distillation of a commitment to one second. In that way it’s a lot tougher than doing film. Though film presents innumerable problems, most of them very technical.

You wouldn’t want to make a film yourself, then?

MAISEL: Years ago I had the opportunity to do a film and I decided not to because I don’t work well with others at all and I have my own vision – I don’t like to be involved with other people’s, not because I’m going to persevere but because I feared I wouldn’t persevere. Every time someone comes to do a film interview with me, I reiterate the same thought: Oh my God, look at all the crap these people have to go through before they can take one frame. That’s more complex than I want it to be.

WILKES: There’s a joy in the spontaneity, the instant gratification.

MAISEL: I love instant gratification. I love it. It was so sensational to be able to do something and not be able to screw it up because it was a finished fact.

It strikes me that both of you have had incredible subjects as photographers. Jay photographed Marilyn Monroe and Miles Davis. Stephen you have captured Ellis Island and are doing these great time lapses of skylines as well. What are some things you still want to do or that you regret missing?

MAISEL: I always wanted to – and did do – whatever I wanted to. Stephen has a sense of purpose in what he does – a beginning, a middle and an end – and he has focus. I’m out there la-dee-da-ing, shooting whatever I want without a plan. We have different approaches to things. I don’t have anything I want to do that I didn’t do. I wish I’d done it better, always wish I had done it better.

WILKES: We always have the picture that you didn’t stop for or the picture where the camera malfunctioned. But Jay in this wonderful, sort of therapeutic way, always says, “But the thing is, you saw it.” Even if you didn’t get the picture.

MAISEL: The crazy thing is that the ones you miss are the ones that always stay in your head more than the ones that you got, because you’re finished with those: It’s a fait accompli. I will always remember every one I screwed up on. You talk about a camera malfunction –

WILKES: You tell the Marilyn story?

MAISEL: Yeah. Marilyn Monroe and Sammy Davis Jr. are flirting with each other at a piano. They were 100% Marilyn Monroe and Sammy Davis Jr. and after I had taken about 150 pictures, I realize I don’t have 150 pictures. My camera was malfunctioning, and I lost it all. I think that every day. I wake up in the morning: You screwed up all those years ago. You keep flagellating yourself.

WILKES: I tend to create bodies of work based on specific things that I’m very interested in. As much as I like doing commercial work, when you start mining your inner self and start speaking from the heart, things change. For me this film is an expression of the heart. Jay’s someone I love, he’s been my friend for almost 40 years. He’s my mentor. I have young guys who work for me and I don’t see them wanting as much anymore to be an apprentice, everybody wants a job. I haven’t been able to pass it on in the way that I’d hoped to. In a strange way I get to mentor the audience through Jay’s story.

Jay Maisel at 190 Bowery in Stephen Wilkes’s “Jay Myself.” Image by Jay Maisel at 190 Bowery in Stephen Wilkes’s JAY MYSELF. © Stephen Wilkes. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

You both keep busy – what are some projects that you’re working on now?

WILKES: For the last 10 years I’ve been shooting this series “Day to Night;” it was just released by Taschen. It’s been the longest single project I’ve done. I’m starting to move my work into documenting endangered species and habitats, really dealing with a lot of the climate issues. I just got back from Greenland, working on a “Day to Night” [a composite image made from many photographs that shows how a location changes in the course of 24 hours] documenting what’s happening to the ice caps in Greenland, which is staggering. We were shooting and my assistants were wearing shorts in 70 degree temperatures. Things are crazy right now. And Jay’s doing an incredible amount of editing of decades of work for books he’s trying to put together. He can speak to that.

MAISEL: My lips didn’t even move. What I’ve been trying to do is go back into all the work I’ve done, my whole life – six decades or more. I could try and publish them. I don’t really want to do that, but I’m putting them all on my website. My website has [photos from] Africa, Japan, Europe, South America and those projects are the things that I never really got a chance to look at before because I was always shooting. No serious photographer has a chance to look at his work if he’s working, because he’s out there doing something that prevents him from going over what he just did. It’s a privilege for me to be able to have the time to be able to do that.

Right, you hear about Garry Winogrand, whom you knew, Jay, and all those rolls of film that they’re just getting around to now, long after his death.

MAISEL: Garry did that his whole life. He always would shoot a great deal of film and when it got up to 500 rolls he would spend a week in a dark room developing it. He was always way ahead of himself. I want to look at the stuff right away, because I feel like I can learn from it. I once said to him “Despite your ego mania, don’t you want to admit that you might be able to learn something from your photos?” And he literally patted me on the head and said “Tatele [Yiddish for ‘little boy’], I know what I’m doing.”

WILKES: I met Garry once with Jay. We all went out for lunch at a pizzeria on Mulberry Street — a beautiful bright sunny day. I knew about Garry and just wanted to sort of watch. I stayed slightly behind him, and I’ll never forget how fast he was. Watching a woman walk through a crosswalk, and Garry, in one motion, had his camera wrapped to his hand and put it to his forehead, took a picture like blinking. It was that fast. And the woman sensed, it was almost like a bird had flown past her or something. She sensed something just happened and didn’t know what it was and by then Garry had put it away. I never saw anybody shoot as fluid.

MAISEL: We were walking along in Houston, Texas and he photographed a guy and the guy said, “You took my picture.” And Garry, who’d never broken stride, turned back and looked at him and said “Yeah, now you’re immortal.”

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected]


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