His approach to photography is disarmingly simple. “I’m trying not to look for anything — I’m trying to have it come to me,” he explains in a recent PDN video clip.
Two new publications aptly bookend Maisel’s extraordinary career with his signature mix of frankness and insight — from his earliest street work in Jay Maisel: New York in the ’50s to the aesthetic epiphanies in Light, Gesture & Color.
In the afterword to Maisel’s 1950s New York book, gallerist Peter Fetterman sums up his persona by noting, “If Damon Runyon were writing today, Jay Maisel would have been a character he would have to create. A smart, quick-witted, fast-talking bear of a man, the quintessential New Yorker. Fortunately for us, Jay is his own creation.”
ASMP: When and under what conditions did you begin making pictures?
Jay Maisel: When I started, I wasn’t a photographer. I was a painter, and so I found myself sneaking out to take pictures. It wasn’t a conscious choice.
In college, I got asked to do pictures for the Cooper Union yearbook. They ran a picture I did of one of my professors as a double-page spread. A double-page spread — how wonderful is that! So I got infected. I went to Yale and studied painting with Josef Albers and I was still running out to take pictures. That continued until I got my degree in painting and I decided, “I don’t want to be a painter, I want to take pictures,” because that seemed to be the thing that I wanted to do.
ASMP: How did you end up studying at both Cooper Union and Yale?
JM: Yale gave us three years credit for Cooper Union. In other words, Yale didn’t have a good student body for art. Josef Albers, who was a painter, came in and said, “I’ve got to get new blood.” He knew Cooper Union had a really tough course so he said, “If you come to Yale, I’ll give you credit for three years of college, plus the year you do here and you’ll get a degree.” So that was great. You got a chance to study with Josef Albers. That’s why I did it.
ASMP: Did you have any significant mentors early on?
JM: I had a very great art teacher in high school, Leon Friend. He got me involved in design and graphics. I grew up in Brooklyn and went to Abraham Lincoln high school, but I wasn’t from that neighborhood. I had spent eight years in yeshiva and that meant I knew Hebrew. I figured if I could take Hebrew as a language in high school, I could coast and wouldn’t have to take Spanish or French. The high school in my neighborhood didn’t have Hebrew so I went to Lincoln, which was quite a ways off. Just by chance, I landed in a school with a great art club called the Art Squad. If you were really good, you might be asked to join the Art Squad. There were terrific classes in art besides the Art Squad, but the Art Squad was really what you wanted to end up doing.
ASMP: Were there other photo resources you consulted early on?
JM: There was a guy named Andreas Feininger, the son of Lyonel Feininger. He did a book called Introduction to Photography. That was my bible. I’m mostly self-taught, which is why I’m not technically oriented at all. I hate when I have to try any new camera because it’s like, “Oh god, I finally learned this one five years ago.”
ASMP: What’s your most valuable professional tool?
JM: If I tell you, you’re not going believe me. It’s technical ineptitude. I’ll give you a quote from Sam Garcia. Sam said, “Photography is about everything except photography.” A lot of photographers think it’s about photography. It’s not. If you get wrapped up in the technique of it, you forget what you came there for.
ASMP: Did you start working in photography right after college?
JM: I immediately tried to start working in photography. I was actually working at a commercial bakery and every Tuesday, I’d take my “portfolio” and show it to people. I’d show it to anyone who would look — magazines, advertising agencies. I did that for about six to nine months, and then I realized it was going to be a very slow process. I went to my father and said, “I want you to back me. You’ve been saying you’d pay off my education all these years and I’ve had scholarships on everything.” And he said, “What do you want?” He was a very generous man. And I said, “Fifty bucks a week.” Which was a lot of money then. And he said, “Fine.” That’s what enabled me to get a big apartment in New York for $53 a month.
ASMP: What year did you officially start doing commercial work?
JM: I started shooting commercially the first year I was in photography: 1954. In 1955, I had a show at the photography gallery owned by Roy DeCarava. I brought Garry Winogrand there because we were friendly. Garry looked at the show and said, “Who designed this show?” I said, “I did.” He said, “You did a good job. Nobody can see how bad the pictures are.” That was Garry. He was the most honest man in the world.
ASMP: Has your approach to shooting changed over the years?
JM: When I started, I shot dance first, then I shot jazz. I used to shoot on the streets in Harlem and people thought I was a black photographer. When I walked into their offices, they were very surprised. Then I got interested in doing technical stuff. There was a part of my life where people thought: he only does jazz, he only does dance, he only does nature. It’s changed over the years. They say, “You should specialize” and I said, “I do, I specialize in taking good pictures.”
ASMP: Has your painting background influenced your style of photography?
JM: Photographers are very interested in what’s happening in front of them and it doesn’t necessarily transfer to the printed image on a formal level as much as it does on an informational level. I’m interested in form as well as the content. I have lot of art background to draw on. People ask, “How can I improve my photography?” I say, “Look at art.” Art has been around for 5,500 to 6,500 years. Photography has been around for 200 years. Which do you think is a greater resource? If you look at art, you become freer. You can see that everything’s already been done.
ASMP: Who were the earliest clients you worked with?
JM: The pharmaceutical company Ciba gave me a terrific advertising campaign for the drug Ritalin. I worked on it for years. At the time, they didn’t know what to do with it. They wanted a shoot in a mental institution, but you couldn’t shoot in such environments, so I had to create one. I had to be director. I had to cast it and everything. Shooting the Ritalin project didn’t seem like a big problem at all. I was very good at finding locations that looked like mental institutions. I used New York public schools on the weekends. I used my own apartment, which was pathetic.
ASMP: What kind of models did you work with?
JM: The casting was wonderful because I never hired a model at that point in my life. I hired actors. Actors know what they’re doing. It’s like the difference between playing an old banjo and playing a Stradivarius. The Stradivarius does all the work. Directing is not that difficult, unless you’re doing a movie. If you’re doing stills it’s pretty easy. My role with my subjects is simply to get them out of their own shell. Getting people to look mentally troubled is not easy, but it can be done. After a while, you figure out how to do it.
ASMP: What was Ciba’s response to your work?
JM: I remember the art director saying, “We’ll pay you this much money for a folder of images.” At one point, he said, “You do a really good job, we want to make two folders.” I said to him, “You’ll pay me for two.” He said, “No, no, no. That’s going to require a hell of a lot of paperwork.” I said, “Hire more bookkeepers. Why should I penalize myself? If I do a good job, I won’t get paid for the next one, because you’ll have used it twice.” He looked at me and said, “Okay.” That kept me alive for a while, until I started doing album covers for Columbia Records.
ASMP: Did you take on the album cover work because you were a music fan?
JM: I love music, but this was a job. The first cover I did was some cockamamie dance album — a very dumb thing, but it was my first check and I was in heaven. Later on, I did a lot of stuff on jazz, including Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, which became the largest selling album cover in history. I like jazz, but I’m not a big jazz fan. I’m not a big fan of anything. Just photography.
Everyone thinks I shot the Miles Davis album cover for somebody. I didn’t. I did that for myself. I just went out shooting. Columbia called and asked, “Do you have anything on Miles Davis?” And that’s how that happened.
ASMP: You originally started shooting in black and white. When did you start shooting color?
JM: In 1963. I was shooting both black and white and color then. But I did one picture of an American flag against an ivory colored house with a chartreuse tree. The picture is in black and white, but it wasn’t what I meant. That’s when I decided, I’m not called by black and white, I’m called by color.
ASMP: Who were some of your long-term commercial clients?
JM: I only had a few clients I worked with all the time. One was United Technologies; I did every one of their ads for seven to ten years. Another long-term client was Chesebrough Ponds; I did their annual report for seventeen years. I was quoted saying, “You should never shoot an annual report for more than three years because by then you’re bored to death with it.” But with this company, we did a different approach every year, so it was interesting.
I shot a myriad of things for them, all kinds of products. I had no idea what they owned until they said, “We bought Bass this year.” I said, “You bought a fish company?!?” And they replied, “No, you idiot. We bought a shoe company.”
ASMP: Of everything you’ve shot, what’s been your favorite assignment?
JM: I had a terrific assignment in the ’80s. They told me to go to Africa, six different countries, and shoot anything I wanted. I was trying to figure out what to do. I thought, “Geez. Anything I want? What if they don’t like what I do?” I spent weeks worrying. Finally, I decided I’d forget them and shoot anything I want. But even then, I was still thinking that I had to make this work for them. They don’t know what they want, but I have to know what they want.
The client was an outfit called Enren. They couldn’t show the product because it was fertilizer. They couldn’t show plants because they didn’t have any. They were trying to move into Somalia, Liberia, countries likes that. I said to them, “Look, I’m not going unless I can get signed telexes from the people confirming that they know I’m coming.” This was a long time ago. I didn’t want to walk into some guy’s office and have him say, “Who are you? What do you want?”
At some point, I went to Madagascar. I walked in and the guy said, “Who are you? What do you want?” I said, “Ah-ha!” I took out the signed telex and gave it to him. He said, “We haven’t used this form in ten years, but obviously, someone wants you here, so I’ll respect that. Except for one thing. I’m going to South Korea tomorrow. I’ll give you my car and driver.” So I had that for a day or two and that was it.
ASMP: Did you ever have trouble translating your personal approach to commercial photography?
JM: Not really. I was there during the Golden Age. People would say, “Go out and investigate this thing.” Now, they show you the layout and tell you to follow it. They say, “We don’t want it better than the layout. We want the layout, because the layout went through nine committees already. It’s been approved by everyone at the agency and the client. When I heard, “No, I don’t want it better than the layout. I want the layout,” I got out of the business. I liked the idea of investigating and not knowing what I was going to shoot. That was fun. Copying somebody else’s shots is not fun.
It wasn’t just the loss of control that turned me off. It was the loss of purpose. I’m not an illustrator. If you put down an object and tell me to shoot it, that’s not what I do. I’ll find a place for the object and I’ll find a way to do it and I’ll do it. There’s ten thousands guys who can illustrate it better than me.
ASMP: Did you also shoot a lot of personal work when you were shooting commercially?
JM: I always shot personal work. Whether I was shooting commercial work or not, my attitude was that I want to shoot jobs that I’d shoot for myself even if I wasn’t getting paid. I couldn’t do that later on, which is why I got out. Doing that required a political as well as a photographic solution. The political solution was moot when they said, “We know exactly what we want you to shoot.” There’s a big difference between a guy who says, “Go shoot anything you want” and a guy who tells you exactly what to shoot. I wanted to be somewhere in the middle.
ASMP: Did you have an active strategy in getting new work or was it more of a synchronistic approach?
JM: You always stumble onto things. I once went through a revolving door with an art director and we laughed and said hello to each other and went on our way. He called me the next day for a job. I said, “The only reason you called me is because we were in a revolving door together.” He said, “Yeah, do you want to hear how I met my wife?” There’s a lot of chance in what we do. I never said to myself, “I’m going to do this kind of work.” There are guys who do that! There’s one photographer I know who decided to do one kind of work and he did it very well, made a fortune, and made nice pictures. I never ever thought that I’m going to do this or that. I’ve always reacted rather than being proactive.
ASMP: Were there any moments in your career that sort of changed your direction?
JM: I was always directionless. Changing directions was not even an issue. I didn’t know what I was going to do next. The only thing was when I had a good client like United Technologies, I was a lot happier personally. If I called them in the middle of the job and said, “This is not going work out,” they wouldn’t say, “I’m sorry, this is what we told you to do.” They’d say, “What do you think we should do?” I’d say, “Look, you sent me out to do this but it doesn’t make any sense. I figured out a better way to do it”. They weren’t namby pamby about it. One day I walked into their offices with a job and they said, “It doesn’t work at all because of this.” And I said, “You’re absolutely right.” There was a give and take to the relationship.
You can’t be dishonest if you want to be creative. When I was younger, I was tactful. I think of guys I dealt with when I was younger. If I talked to them later, I would have laughed at them. One guy said to me, “Are you going to turn in a really great job?” What a dumb question.
ASMP: You’re most well known for your commercial and advertising work. Did you also shoot editorial work?
JM: I did a lot of editorial work, but it’s always been easier for me to get advertising than editorial work. I never felt editorial work was God’s work. They sent you out with a polemic. They wanted you to find what they wanted. They weren’t interested if you discovered the opposite point of view.
At least in advertising, I knew I was a whore, and I got paid for being a whore. In editorial, you’re asked to be pure. They weren’t telling me to find my own way. They’re telling me that I have to find what they want.
I remember I worked with Buckminster Fuller for a while and they were testing a dome in Huntington, Long Island. I called LIFEmagazine and I said, “I’ve got an in with Bucky Fuller. They’re testing a dome, and I really want to go shoot it. Would you give me the assignment?” They sent Ralph Morse instead, who was a good shooter. I said, “Screw them, I’ll never work for them again. I’ll teach them a lesson.” So I didn’t work for them for 25 years after that. Everybody wanted to work for LIFE.
ASMP: What was the biggest challenge that you’ve had in your career?
JM: Every shoot was a challenge. I was terrified of every job. Sometimes, I got a job and it seemed so infinitely simple that I couldn’t figure out — number one, why they hired me, number two, why they hired me? I couldn’t understand it. It’s so simple to do. Of course, the job ended up being so complex that I would get by with the skin of my teeth and just barely be able to do it.
ASMP: Would you do much background research for commercial jobs?
JM: I didn’t like to prepare well because I always thought that took away from the spontaneity of the shoot. Some photographers have been quoted as saying they like to research a city and walk around without a camera before they start. That is not me; I want that whole kaleidoscopic quality of newness.
ASMP: What was the oddest or most unpredictable situation you encountered during a shoot?
JM: Everything is wacko. I had a reputation for being tough with art directors. I wasn’t, I was fine with them, but here were a few situations where the art director became a pain in the ass. I had heard about Reed Miles. He’s very pretty. He’s a model, so I shot him as a model. Years later, he became a very good photographer in his own right. He went to South America and was shooting something for Braniff Airlines and he fired the art director off the shoot. He’s working for the agency, how can he fire the art director?
Then I got in situations where I understood why. I can count the number of art directors that gave me a hard time on one hand. This came when I was older — when I was younger, I was too intimidated to do it — but one time I had an art director who came on the job in Jamaica and brought grass. He was stoned the entire time. He had hired two models and one was a guy with a very bad drug habit. I didn’t have the courage to say, “What are you doing.” Later on, I would never allow something like that to happen.
I had situations where I had to tell an art director, “Look, you’re messing up the shoot. I’m not going to allow you to mess up the shoot, because when we come back, nobody will say it was your fault. Everybody’s going to say it was my fault; that I messed up the job. So I’m telling you now, if you continue messing up the shoot, you’re out of here.”
Sometimes, the art director was very negative and killed everybody’s spirit. Nothing was good enough for them. I did that to one guy and later got a call from the agency. I thought, “Oh, they’re going to ream me out.” But they said, “Did that art director give you a hard time?” I said, “We had some differences of opinion, but we’re working it out.” They were pissed at him because a good art director has one function: Pick the right guy to shoot and leave him alone. I tell people, “If you’re going to give me a lot of money and then tell me what to do, you’re wasting your money.” You can get a young kid who’s not going to argue and tell them what to do. If you know what you want to do, shoot it yourself.
ASMP: Did you have a favorite art director to work with?
JM: I had a lot of favorite art directors. One guy was Jay Morales. At one point, I said to him, “The shoot is going be at 11:00. What time will you get there?” He said, “I’m not coming. Don’t you know what you’re doing?” There’s a special place in my life for him. I love him. Other things about him too, but the main thing was I believed — and I try to do this if I’m hiring somebody — you hire somebody and you let them do what they want. Your creativity is in hiring the right guy.
ASMP: What was the most important business advice you’ve been given?
JM: I wasn’t given advice. There are things that I’ve gleaned over the years. When I was a painter, I had to have my paintings photographed, so I went to a photographer. When I went to pick up the photos and the paintings, I paid him for the prints and said, “Can I have the negatives?” He said “No.” I said, “What do you mean, no? They’re my paintings.” He said, “They’re my photographs.” I asked him, “What if I want to make more prints?” And he said, “Ah-ha, that’s why I’m keeping the negatives.” I said, “You have a pretty good business.” That was the advice I got. It wasn’t real advice, but it was good to understand that there was a way to keep the rights and the originals. No one ever sat me down and said that. It seemed logical.
ASMP: How and when did you happen upon licensing the rights to your images rather than selling them?
JM: I didn’t even know what licensing rights meant. All I knew was that I never sold my pictures. I wrote on all my bills, “One time use only.” I should’ve written more, but I was stupid. That’s all I knew to write. It helped me a lot.
ASMP: When did you first get involved in stock photography?
JM: That started long, long before it started in the business. There were very few stock houses when I started. I sold a lot of stock. The first year I was in the business, I started selling stock because people would look at my portfolio and they wanted to buy stuff. I had no idea that it was going to get as big as it did. I shot all the time so there was a lot of stuff.
ASMP: Did you feel like you were a good businessman?
JM: People think I’m a good businessman because I want to get paid. Can you imagine what kind of an industry that is?
Once, at an ASMP meeting, a young photographer came up to the president of ASMP and said, “I’m really fed up with all the guys that get up and tell us how well they’re doing. It’s braggy and pointless.” I was a young photographer too then, but not that young. I couldn’t help myself. I looked up and said, “Would you rather they tell us how badly they’re doing? And how bad the industry is?”
I watched another kid say, “I don’t know what to do. I did a job, I haven’t been paid for it; they don’t return the pictures. I’ve written and I’ve phoned them and they don’t answer my calls.”
The president said, “I think it might be time to get a lawyer,” and the guy responded, “But I don’t want to lose them as a client.” That’s the industry that we’re in. These are the people who think I’m a great businessman, because I think it’s a good idea to get paid for what you do.
ASMP: Do you have an estimate of how many pictures are contained in your archive?
JM: Millions. It’s probably less than I think and more than most people. I’m a compulsive shooter.
ASMP: Do you always edit your own work?
JM: Always, which is why there’s so much stuff here. Taking pictures is very hard. Shooting pictures is fun. Editing them is a bitch.
I’m trying to move right now. You know what’s in those cabinets? Each drawer has thirteen boxes with eight hundred slides in each. I don’t want to leave anything in the garbage because people take them out. We went to Iron Mountain, they sent bins and we threw out over a million pictures. Theoretically, they shred them, but who knows? They could sell them in China.
ASMP: Do you have a favorite story about working with other photographers?
JM: I did a job for Jacques Lowes in Iran. He was on a bus with me, and said in his German accent, “You’re like Dr. Strangelove. He was like this (miming Seig Heil). You are like this (miming taking a picture). You never stop.”
I delivered the job to Lowe and his partner and the partner said, “How could you shoot so much good stuff in five days.” Lowe ribbed his partner and said, “You want him to raise the price on us?”
Jacques was a hustler. He was Kennedy’s photographer. He was also the Rothschild’s photographer. He was the photographer for IOS (Investors Overseas Service). He was an entrepreneur. He was doing a book for the Empress of Iran and he couldn’t do it himself. He got me, Burt Glinn, Bruno Barbey, and a bunch of other people to help. We all went to shoot.
Nothing about Jacques was common. He was one of a kind. He was a very good photographer and he was also a hustler and a businessman. Jacques was unusual; of all the photographers I knew, nobody else hired other photographers to do anything.
I worked with him for IOS and I worked with him on the Iran book. He was a very funny guy but he was also a bully. At one point, I went into his office. He didn’t like something I shot and he literally got up on the couch — because he was short — and started screaming. This happened regularly. All the people in the offices knew. You could tell because they closed their doors and windows and left. When he was finished, I got up on the couch and started screaming at him. I wasn’t worried about him. He was a good guy, but I wasn’t going to let him get away with that. That was pure ego on my part.
ASMP: Are other team members or dedicated collaborators of particular importance to your work?
JM: I’ve had assistants who worked for me for a long time. One guy worked for me for 17 years, another guy for 14 and another for 12 years. Since then, the time periods have gotten shorter.
ASMP: What do you look for in an assistant?
JM: I don’t look for people who are photographers. If a really good photographer came to work for me, I’d throw him out. I had a guy come in to show me his work. He was 33 years old and a very good photographer. I threw him out of the building. He said, “Why?” I said, “Because you’re too good to work for anybody. You’re looking for a place to hide.” Six months later, he sent me his first published book.
ASMP: When did you start shooting digital?
JM: I started in 2000. Sam Garcia said, “Here, this is a digital camera. I want you to use it. I know you don’t want to, but you’re going to love it.” He literally forced the thing in my hand. I never picked up a film camera again. I think I did three or four rolls, because there was a wide-angle lens I couldn’t use with the digital but other than that I never touched analog again.
ASMP: Did digital change your approach to photography?
JM: It didn’t, but it opened doors for me. I could shoot in bad light, when I could never shoot there before. I could get better quality in situations that I could never get good quality.
ASMP: When did you start teaching?
JM: In 1966, I was teaching at SVA. I only stayed there for a short while. I didn’t used to like teaching at SVA because the kids at the day school were sent by wealthy parents. They didn’t have anything invested. The night school kids paid for it by themselves, so they had a lot invested. Cooper Union, where I taught later, was a university setting and I didn’t like it for a number of reasons. Number one, it locked me in. I had to be in town and it inhibited me from taking jobs. At one point, I went to Cooper Union and I said, “I want to have somebody take over my class.” They asked me who would take over. I gave them a name and they said, “No he’s not a big name. We don’t know him at all and consequently you can’t get him to replace you.”
Every once in awhile I wouldn’t show up and my recommendation would show up until finally we would alternate. Then they realized how good he was and they made him the teacher. That was Joel Meyerowitz. Nobody knew him then.
ASMP: What about the workshops you teach?
JM: I like workshops. You have a chunk of time during which someone comes in and you see him or her go from here to there. Even when they don’t go from here to there, they end up knowing which way they want to go. It’s a wonderful experience to see someone grow.
I’ve taught workshops in a hundred different places, but I started the workshops at the bank in 2007. We’ve done about 50 workshops here since then and they’ve all been really good. Look at my Web site and read the feedback. People probably think I put bamboo under their fingernails to get them to say such nice things. It’s a revelation what the students get out of it. My teaching is like running down stairs. You don’t know what your feet are doing, but you’re doing it. I don’t know what I’m doing exactly but it’s working well and I don’t want to analyze it too much.
The workshops at the bank are very different, this is boot camp; it’s 12 hours a day. We now have a waiting list because I’m obsessed with this move. We have ten people in a class and we have about 220 people on the waiting list.
ASMP: Please tell us about the bank. What year did you buy it?
JM: 1966. It was a continuation of my drive to be classified as a maniac. Not one person said, “That’s a good idea,” or, “Oh, you’ll be able to handle that,” or, “That’s a real investment in the future.” None of us thought it was an investment, because this area was such a bad place. The neighborhood was terrible. Literally everybody told me I was crazy, that I would never be able to do it.
ASMP: What was it like when you first bought it?
JM: There was garbage three feet high in the main room. We cleaned everything with acid. We didn’t know we weren’t supposed to do that. If I say, I want to clean marble, not one resource is going to say, clean it with muriatic acid. In those days, everybody said, muriatic acid will clean marble. That’s because it takes the entire top surface off. By the time we got finished, we weren’t even using gloves. It was filthy.
I was so obsessed with working on the place that I didn’t take any before pictures. Tom McCarthy is a good photographer from Florida. I showed him the place and he took a bunch of shots. About 30 years later he sent them to me and said, “I don’t want these things, but you’d probably like them.”
ASMP: Were you married when you bought the bank? When did you move in?
JM: I wasn’t married when I bought it. That was 50 years ago, and I got married when I was 20, 40 and 60 years old. I started living at the bank a year after I got it and I didn’t put a picture up until three years later. I’ve been renovating it for 48 years and now, I’m moving.
ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member and what initially prompted you to join?
JM: I’ve been involved with ASMP for a long time. I started shooting in 1954. I found ASMP in ‘55. ASMP was very helpful. I always say to everybody in the business, “You may not like ASMP, but it’s the only organization that represents you. It’s a meritocracy, so join it. If you don’t like it, change it. But join it because they’re the only one that fights for you. Whether they’re schmucky, dumb, incompetent, corrupt, dishonest — it doesn’t matter. They’re the only ones you have. If you want to make it better, you make it better.”
ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?
JM: I told you what I felt about ASMP — even if you don’t approve it, you have to join it. But I paid my dues. At one point they called me and said, “Since you’ve been a member for 20 years, you don’t have to pay dues anymore.” I said, “I’ve been a member for 40 years. I want rebates!” I got nothing. I put in my time. Nobody listens to me because I’m an old fart and also because the paradigm of business has changed so much. I used to teach business in my classes and I never do it anymore because if you take my method of doing business in today’s economy, you’ll never get a job.
ASMP: What’s the most important relationship you formed through ASMP?
JM: I’ve met a lot of people. I met Larry Fried, who I thought was terrific. There’s a bunch of photographers who have the impression that, for some reason, I made their careers because I told them never give away their work. Those people think I’m hot shit. The rest don’t know who I am.
ASMP: What’s the most important advice you’d give a young photographer today?
JM: Walk slowly, move your ass, study hard. And, walk slowly and move your ass are not contradictory points.
ASMP: What’s the most valuable business decision you’ve made.
JM: Not to give away or sell my work, but just to license it.
ASMP: What is it about New York that’s made it your inspiration for so long? Have you ever thought of moving out of the city?
JM: New York is the greatest place in the world. I mean, I look at what you have to spend here to live and I could live in another place like an emperor, but I’d rather live here.
In real simple terms, I found a place in Jersey City that is huge, that’s reasonably priced, that’s the best-maintained building I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s got the best security I’ve ever seen in my life. And I’m not going there, because when you walk out on the street, you’re in Jersey City. I’m a snob. The only good thing about New Jersey is that the view is of New York.
ASMP: Do you have a favorite neighborhood in New York to photograph?
JM: I go where people are densest, Times Square, 42nd Street. You can mess up and you got a million other people who are going to come by that don’t even know how badly you screwed up the other shot.
ASMP: What’s your biggest fear?
JM: Someone once sent out a questionnaire to photographers, and do you know how many photographers have the same fear? Every photographer: Going blind. Not every, but a lot of them. Absolutely 90 percent of everything comes in through the eyes.
ASMP: In your opinion, what’s the key to maintaining inspiration? How do you keep your eye fresh?
JM: I don’t have a secret. I either get a kick out of what’s going on around me or I don’t. My Aunt Gussey once came to my office on 42nd Street. I had a wall of 35mm transparencies checkerboard style. She was sitting at the table and I asked her how she liked the place. She said she liked it. I asked her about the pictures. “Oh, they’re nice,” she said. I said, “Gussey, did you go up there and look?” She said, “I can see just fine.” She was 25 feet away [and the slides] were 2×2 inches each. You can never learn to see, if you don’t want to look. If you love to look, you’re going to see and you’re going to get pleasure out of it.
Some people are into music. Some are into visuals. Some are into family life. Whatever it is, if you have it, you do it and you love it. If you don’t enjoy it, you stop doing it. I’ve never stopped enjoying it.
We threw out the Christmas tree the other day and all the needles formed into a pattern on the ground by the elevator. I pointed it out and the kid who works with me, Matt Dean, says, “You always see beauty.” That was one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.
— Interview by Harrison Jacobs and Jill Waterman