Jay Maisel’s Workshop

Friday night, New York City.  The body is aching, the stomach is still full, the brain is shot.  Welcome to the final day of the 5-day workshop by Jay Maisel.  I have mixed feelings:  I'm tired, mentally overloaded, and homesick, yet feeling sad that this all-too-brief little world of 8 people is coming to a close.  We've come from all over the world to learn: Sydney, London, Vancouver, L.A., San Francisco, Boston, and Connecticut.  We come from different walks of life: a doctor, a couple of pro photographers, me, a mining engineer, a barrister, a retired librarian, and a salesforce efficiency analyst.  A fun point: all the men shoot Nikon, all the women Canon.

We've been eating well and varied, too, part of the reason for being here — good food and drink, great company, and total photographic immersion.  Japanese, Italian, Greek, American, Jewish Deli, and Vietnamese to name a few.  "Good Food Poisoning", Joe McNally, one of the attendees, called it.  I feel I need to cleanse my system with some bread and water.

Why am I here?  Perhaps as a cleansing journey as well.  Many workshops show you how to do things, like work with lights, or to work with hard light, or how to pose people.  Few tackle the really hard question of what makes a good photo, or break things down into sterile rules.  I've been trying to figure that out recently, spending bits of time in topics related to human perception and gestalt, trying to get photos that can make people react.  Jay's workshop was very timely.

Jay's retired from commercial photography and is focusing his time on his personal projects and street photography now.  I have never been much for street photography, yet his workshop is all about street photography for the shooting exercises, so here is an opportunity to jump into the deep end.  So much of what I've seen is boring, voyeuristic captures with super long lenses of inane, uninteresting moments.  A quick grab of someone walking and talking on their phone just doesn't do it for me.  I'm dreading this, but I am approaching this with as open a mind as I can.  Empty vessel, empty vessel, I repeat to myself.  Jay sends us out into NYC alone, each person going his or her own way to find worthy photographic opportunities and to work them.

The light is tough.  Greyish overcast hangs over Manhattan for much of the time, only lifting one morning to provide glorious contrasty backlight.  When the skies finally open up with rain I'm happy as well with the new opportunities — it seems that there are way more umbrellas here per capita, compared to Vancouver.  But as I know from weddings, it's about doing the best you can with what's available, and the overcast gives a soft light quality for portraits.  It's easy to get fooled by great light and forget about the point of the picture, just like glorious sunsets are easy to photograph, but so many of them are empty and pointless.  I do things I didn't consider before, like stalking worthy subjects up and down the block, waiting for them to be framed perfectly, or to do something interesting.  Or stake out a good spot for 15 minutes for an actor to walk onto my stage.  It's a blast!

Back at Jay's bank-residence-studio, we go into the boardroom for daily critiques and presentations.  Juan Jose quips upon our first invitation, "someone is going to be fired."  Nervous laughter.  It isn't that bad.  If there's a nervous feeling about the quality of any picture, it's probably warranted, and normally results in a bad critique.  I learn to be objective about my work, taking all emotion out of them, and I get better.  Who cares how much effort it was to take a shot if it's bad?  Even so, I feel a bit nervous even with stuff I like, and handing in the USB stick of images each day brings back memories of handing in a test in university.  Though tough on his critique, you know he just wants to make you a better photographer: "It's the sin, not the sinner", "If you're not your own severest critic, you're your own worst enemy".  These and many other Jay-isms will stay with me, as will the anecdotes from a life of photography.  Straight and to the point "Boring", "Doesn't work for me", "What's all this shit in the corners?  You're responsible for every square millimeter of your frame!"  Yet one can't help but love the guy who guides and nags us along our journey using colourful aphorisms and streams of f-bombs. 

As the days go on, it becomes easier, I become bolder about getting the shot, which includes a lot of waiting, running after the prey, and putting up with the dirty looks that people give when they see you.  My critiques get better too, thankfully.  I realize that street photography is very similar to wedding photography, namely opening myself up to the multitude of photo-worthy places and moments around me, anticipating them, setting up the camera, composing the frame, focusing, and capturing the moment.  I'm learning to let go, to truly have fun, and to take the chance to either succeed gloriously or fail gloriously.  Each day the pictures get better and the honest critique is such a refreshing change from the inane "that's pretty good", "nice" platitudes that are so often uttered in hopes of not quashing feelings regardless of the quality of pictures.

Jay brings a fresh, child-like enthusiasm for life, not just photography, and realizing this is where the workshop goes past how to take better pictures to touch on how to live a richer, happier life.  As we go through his work and ours, we start gaining a sense of what makes a photo interesting.  Jay distills it down to three things: light, colour, and gesture.  While light and colour are pretty self-explanatory, gesture is really what gives the image its finishing touch, its soul, its sense of movement.  As we start to incorporate one or more of all these elements in our photos, they get better and better.  Looking back just to the start of the workshop shows definitive improvement for everbody.  Photos we were proud of on Monday now seem mundane and embarrassing.  Our baseline for what constitutes a good photo are forever changed. 

Surprise guest speakers drop by Jay's workshop; apparently nobody has refused him.  This time around, we had Barbara Bordnick, Duane Michals, and Walter Iooss.  I hadn't previously had the pleasure of seeing Barbara's work in various fashion magazines, but she has some of the best flower pictures I've ever seen; Duane is a hilarious, stream-of-consciousness speaker; and Walter is a celebrated SI sports and swimsuit photographer credited with bringing Fuji film to the US among other things.  All have had successful commercial careers, but they are also just as interesting for their personal work that they shared with us.

This post would be incomplete without mentioning Jamie, Jay's assistant, who made everything painless, had everthing organized, from the posters we all got to take home, to hand-stamping our name cards.  How he does all he does yet keep calm is a mystery to me.  Both Jay and Jamie make everything easy, pleasurable, and fun.  The overall experience is amazing, from the food, to the ever-changing artwork for us to admire, to the gifts like camera straps (an Upstrap, no less), memory cards from Sandisk, posters, T-shirts, and books.

A trip to the upper floors of the bank reveal room after room of stuff.  One floor looks like his overflow storage area.  Rooms are stuffed old tools, coral, seashells, gears, ball bearings, marbles, and other bric-a-brac held onto simply because they are interesting.  Interspersed with these are some artistic works-in-progress: a tray containing electric toothbrushes topped with rubber eyeballs anyone?  If it weren't so darned organized, somehow cohesive, and uncluttered, it might be a trip into a rogue hoarder's home.  Rooms on other floors are set up like galleries, with Jay's work adorning the walls.  The visual senses are stimulated past overload.

Tonight, instead of going out, we had a wonderful dinner upstairs in Jay's residence on the 6th floor.  His wife Linda is a great cook and host and we're all welcomed like old friends.  We chill out and also get to meet Joe and Jamie's wonderful wives Annie and Jenny.  We also have a chance to go up onto the 7th floor roof and shoot the NY skyline with Joe's 600/4 lens.

All too soon it is over and we're back downstairs packing up and saying our final farewells.  I'm sure as I reflect over the next few days on this workshop it will very likely join my list of pivotal, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.  It is a substantial investment in time, no doubt, but one I'm happy to say is supremely worth it.  To the other attendees: you guys rock, thank you for being a wonderful part of it.