Episode #7 of the course Most famous photographers of all time
A native New Yorker, Jay Maisel is one of the most successful and prolific contemporary American photographers. Maisel has worked for over five decades and is known as one of the founders of “street photography,” capturing street scenes and images of everyday life in New York City. Most of his photography has been in black and white, although he has made a few forays into color. Maisel has also been a successful commercial photographer, shooting several classic advertising images.
He has been described as photographing “compulsively,” as if he cannot help it, taking hundreds of images per day. He seems to be overwhelmed by interesting images that he’s trying to capture every moment. Maisel’s street photographs have been described like “an elbow in the ribs saying ‘Hey, look at that.’”
After studying painting and classical art at Cooper Union and Yale University, Jay Maisel applied his newly learned techniques to photography. Maisel spent the 1960s and ‘70s photographing commercially, including as an album cover photographer for Columbia Records. He snapped the photo of Miles Davis that serves as the cover for Kind of Blue, which is the best-selling jazz record of all time.
Maisel’s work also appeared on the covers of numerous magazines, including five Sports Illustrated covers and the first two covers for New York Magazine. In addition, he has always promoted himself as an independent artist, snapping photos for his own artistic purposes. Over the past half-century, his work has graced the walls of galleries around the world.
Like many photographers experienced with film, Maisel is known to focus on the shot in front of him. He avoids using flash, focuses on natural light and the use of movement, and doesn’t adjust images in the darkroom when he shoots on film. However, these days, he shoots entirely on digital, still attempting to capture the image in the viewfinder rather than using alteration software.
Maisel’s house in Manhattan, the historic Germania Bank Building, is nearly as famous as he is. It boasts one of history’s highest real estate value increases. An 1895 single-family mansion, the building contains 72 rooms over 6 floors for a total of 35,000 square feet. Maisel and his family lived there for 40 years before selling the property for over 500 times its purchase price. Maisel continues to live in Manhattan.
The prolific photographer describes himself as seeing in a “telescope” view rather than wide angle. He states that he always looks at the center of an image and brings his focus in close whenever he has a subject in sight. Maisel brings out history, vitality, and real human connection in a city that he says “delights” him every day—a city he says is “full of life.”
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