I spent last week in New York City at The Jay Maisel Workshop. Jay is a living icon and it was a privilege and honor to spend the week learning from him. For those that don’t know Jay, he is a photographer born in Brooklyn, New York in 1931. He studied at Manhattan’s Cooper Union and then at Yale University. He started as a commercial photographer in the mid 1950s and for the last 15 years has focused on personal projects and teaching. Jay lives in the historic Germania Bank Building in lower Manhattan in the Bowery.
Jay’s personal description of this workshop:
“In the past I’ve gotten calls from people who wanted to know what the hell they’d be getting themselves into if they take my class. Fair enough, but if you want to know what exactly the class will be like, that’s impossible because it’s a free form living thing that also depends on what you bring to the group dynamic. We will be in my environment, my city, my building, there are no rules.
You will be sent out on assignment to shoot people. There will be criticism of your work. You will be forced to look at my work (criticism of my work is optional). There will be demonstrations and end talk designed to help you avoid the problems that plague you. You will be nagged into improving your images. There won’t be enough time to do all of the shooting, editing, critiquing, talking and looking at my work that you’ll want to do. You will be overwhelmed. We will all eat together at different New York City neighborhood restaurants and talk about photography.
Everyone will be shooting digitally, but this course is not about using a computer to manipulate your images. It’s about how to look for, see, and evaluate your images. It is most certainly not about photoshop, which we will not discuss. You will end up a better photographer, if not a better human being. If this is not specific enough, please read the quotes from my former students.”
I honestly didn’t know what to expect walking into the Jay Maisel Workshop. The description on Jay’s site provided so little information I focused my decision primarily on the feedback of past students. People were using words like: ‘one in a lifetime experience’ and ‘life changing’ to describe their experience there.
It is a bit intimidating walking into Jay’s studio. You are surrounded by amazing photography hanging everywhere. The place is simply amazing. Jay wasted little time and gathered us around a table to begin our education as photographers. We lectured through most of the morning on Light, Color and Gesture. We talked a lot about photographing people. Jay said “a portrait is a collaboration” meaning that the subject is involved in the process. If you are simply shooting someone from a distance then it is simply a picture of someone.
After a morning of lecture we headed to Katz’s Deli for pastrami sandwiches. Katz is famous for the scene in ‘When Harry met Sally’ when Meg Ryan showed Billy Crystal that woman can successfully fake orgasms by doing it right in the middle of the restaurant.
Jay had us shoot bracketed exposures the entire class. There is no cropping, exposure adjustment, or editing allowed. He wants to see the pictures as we took them. Our assignment after lunch was to pair up and head out into the streets to shoot but first we had to shoot each other so we understood what it felt like to be on the other side of the lens.
Meet Deanna…she was my partner for day 1 of shooting
Each day was a mix of lecture, shooting on the street and critique of each others images. I really wanted to increase my comfort level with people more than anything. I wanted to shoot all different kinds of people and really master my skill in photographing people. Most people struggle with getting up the nerve to take someone’s picture and many people when they do rush through it and don’t take the time to take a proper picture of someone. The main thing I took away from Jay when shooting people is what type of impression do you want to leave on them? You can make their day better or worse. I really took that to heart and tried my best to make sure that the experience I left them with was a very positive one. I always gave my card to people I shot and I was surprised with how many contacted me for a copy of the photo.
The next group of photos were shot by my fellow student Kathy Cadigan… It was nice to have my own personal paparaizai. I need to get one of these in Tokyo…
We finished dinner around 8PM and it was back to the Bank for a few more hours of lecture. Jay continued to drill into our heads his philosophies on photography ‘There is nothing neutral in your photograph. Everything in the image is either working for you or against you.’ He would continue to drill this point into us for the days to come. We wrapped up Day 1 just after 10PM. We were exhausted.
A few of us hit Gatsby’s on Spring street for a drink after class. This became a regular haunt for us for nights to come.
Day 2 brought us more lectures, critiques and shooting. You are expected to be up and out shooting before class. Heavy rain was expected on Wednesday so we were sent out for a long afternoon of shooting on Tuesday after eating Chinese Dumplings at Vanessa’s. I was paired up with Kathy and we headed north in the city to Harlem and then Times Square.
After a day of shooting we all met up at Pylos for some amazing Greek food. I was quickly learning that this was much more of a photography and food event as Jay was bringing us to some of the best places in New York City to eat. Here were my submissions from Day 2 for review and critique.
I felt very satisfied with my Day 1 and 2 submissions. We had lunch at a great Italian place in the Bowery called Emporio.
Richard educating Jay…apparently he has a similar picture of himself doing the same thing with Alan Greenspan.
I hit the streets for Day 3 with Russ.
After shooting we went to a showing of photography by different artists. The big take away for me on this was something Jay said repeatedly through the week. ’let your images stand for themselves’ meaning you don’t need to walk the viewer through your images but rather let the images speak for themselves. Almost all of the photographers spoke the entire time their images were up and as a viewer I couldn’t focus on the images but rather I was focused on what they were saying. It’s best to introduce and then let them speak for themselves. After shooting we had an amazing dinner at a restaurant called City Hall.
Meet Larry… I shot this at dinner while trying to prove I could shoot a Leica image sharp while hand held at 1/6 of a second.
I had made it though the critiques that are notoriously hard and direct mostly unscathed. This was all about to change with my Day 3 submissions.
One point that Jay continued to drill into us each day was to ‘accept full responsibility for everything in the frame’ and that ‘nothing is neutral, it either works for or against us’. I got tore up for the arm rest that he thought distracted from the rest of the picture. He said I needed to try harder to get the shot I wanted rather than settle that the armrest was there.
Jay said he wanted me to move past posing people and start capturing people in the scenes they are already in and not ones I put them in. This is all meant to push us out of our comfort zones.
I was pretty proud when I took this picture as I thought the reflections were very interesting. Jay’s immediate response was ‘didn’t you see that giant fucking box in the bottom middle of your picture. You should have as it completely distracts me.’… We spent some time on what would have been a more effective framing of the shot.
It is interesting that it seems so obvious now but didn’t at the time. We picked at images for hours and by the end of the week many of these things become second nature by the end of the week.
On Thursday a very interesting photographer named Duane Michals came in to spend time with us and review his images and speak about photography. A very interesting photographer. I picked up a copy of his book called ‘The House I once called home’.
We combined the critiques for Days 4 and 5 into a 5 shot critique on Friday morning to make sure we have enough time for an additional shoot and the remaining lectures. I paired up with Cindi for Day 4 and Richard for Day 5.
Here were my submissions for Day 4 and 5.
Thursday brought us to lunch at ‘The Meatball Shop’ and dinner at Ippudo, a great Japanese noodle place.
On Friday after our day or lectures and critiques Jay brought us on a tour of his gallery and workshop…
Of course Jay had one more lecture for us…where he asked some pretty provocative questions…
My Leica was pretty lonely this week as you can see…
Jay has all sorts of things in his workshop but the most interesting was a machine that fills the room with hearts that he had made for his daughter on Valentine’s Day.
We went on the roof and shot the views of NYC.
Meet John… one of Jay’s assistants who helped keep everything moving.
Meet Thomas…another one of the students of the workshop.
After some roof top shooting we were invited into Jay’s house for food and drinks…
Jay’s lovely wife Linda…
Jay’s assistant Jamie Smith with his lovely wife and their new born daughter.
Listen to Jay one last time… on the right is other workshop student Jeff.
On Saturday a small group of us headed over to Richard’s apartment to see his view of the city and take a few shots from his view at 1 Central Park West
I kept remembering as I was shooting that Jay kept saying ‘take the shot that no one else is taking’…
I kept shooting and trying to work the shot to get ‘the shot’…I had great views but didn’t have a unique shot.
After a few minutes I found my shot…Central Park West reflecting back into the building. Both Richard and his son said they have never seen that view in more than 10 years living there…it felt like ‘graduation’.
I learned so much in such a short time at Jay’s workshop. It was an amazing experience and something I will always treasure. Thanks Jay for sharing your knowledge, passion and dedication with us.
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