Happy Birthday Jay: Stephen Wilkes

I can remember the day like it was almost yesterday – hard to believe it was 33 years ago when we first met.  I was so awed by your vision when I first saw your work as a freshman in college, in the Time-Life series on photography called, “Color”.

I know what you’re thinking… “Oh God , he’s going to go on and on here”, but as you love to say,” Listen, Man,” just let me indulge for a minute or two…

I knew I had to meet you the summer of 1978, but never dreamed I would get the opportunity to work with you.  It was a life changing experience.  I was in search of a dream, having been told most of my life that I would never make a living as a photographer.  I knew one thing: I loved taking pictures more than anything – it was my passion. In you, I found someone who loved it as much and even more.   Best of all, you were an incredibly successful businessman, and artist.

When Tom Mason slid open the massive wooden door at 190 Bowery, my world changed, literally and figuratively.  I stood under your basketball hoop (which would later become some of my fondest memories of us playing pick up games after work) my mouth agape looking at an ocean of incredible images.  I never saw that much incredible photography in one room, and little did I know that it was just the beginning.   Your studio manager, Irv Hanson buzzed you on an intercom, “Jay, Jay, Jay,” his voice echoing off the cavernous ceiling of the main room.  There was this long pause of silence, which heightened the drama, and then you spoke. It was if you were speaking at me from all four corners of the main room at once. I instantly thought of the wizard in the Wizard of Oz! Instead of saying, “Oz has SPOKEN,” you said “Yo!”   It was perfect; in my mind and in my heart I had arrived in the “Emerald City” of photography.

Irv mentions my name to you and you say, “send him up to two, man.”  I walk up steps,  in utter darkness.  Irv tells me once I reach the top of the steps to “clap.”  I do as I’m told and suddenly the lights come on.  I never experienced a clapper before I met you!  I now see another enormous room, with even larger prints… I feel that I’m in a museum.  I finally enter a vestibule where I can see an elevator.  I hear the humming motor as it descends downward, where it stops. I hear a sound that would become so familiar to me, when you stop the manually operated Otis elevator and the crank swings into neutral, and then the sound of that old spring loaded door opening.  There as the door opens, you are standing, looking at me and I am looking up at you.  I’m overwhelmed by your physical presence, which with everything I had experienced so far made perfect sense.  You are smoking the largest cigar I’ve ever seen, pulling it out of your mouth; you some how avoid spilling the three inches of ash that’s still on its tip. “Hey man,” you say,” come on in.”  As I begin to focus, I notice you’re wearing no shirt, a pair of jeans, and as I glanced down, the oddest looking slippers (which I figured out later were Sorrel winter boot liners).  You then say, “so how long you been shooting, kid?”  I can barely breathe, let alone talk, and I mumble “…since I was 12”.  You say, “son of a bitch, man… you started earlier than I did”!  We arrive to the 6th floor, where you proceed to give me the greatest portfolio review in my life.  What you may not have realized was just what a moment that was for me.  Someone of your stature viewing my work and telling me I was in your words, “cut the shit kid – you’re really fucking good!”  I remember the piece of stationary I had enclosed in the portfolio.  I can still recite the words you wrote as they are etched in my memory,  “TERRIFIC – Very wide Range…. I almost stole a few, and there are some I don’t even understand yet… Please keep working. …And leave me your phone number.”

You then asked if I was good at book keeping… which at that point I would have told you anything, so I stretched my talents a bit.  I did take accounting but  failed to mention that I was lousy at math.  I can tell you that I never pay any more purchase orders, and  I also promise not to share your driving skills with anyone!

That first summer was just the greatest.  I remember how you exposed me to everything: from cleaning the steps in the front of the building, installing insulation (remember, young Jews from Great Neck have trouble telling a Phillips head from a flat head, so this was a big deal for me); the spider room; and of course, repro mania, which at the time I had no idea was a contagious disease. You even exposed me to my first ride in a helicopter, as I assisted you shooting aerials over NYC. You asked me after the summer, “So what have you learned the last few months?” I responded. “ I’ve learned so much that it will take five years to distill it all.”

Of all the things you shared with me, the most eye-opening was how you defined the work ethic – how talent meant nothing; you said to me, “If you are going to do this for a living…you have to outwork everyone.”  It was something that inspired me, and I now tell those same words to my own children.

Some of my favorite memories were when I would go to Fleet Messenger to pick up your film, and come back to the studio to set it up in the set up box.  I loved going through every single roll, and cherished when you would ask me how everything looked.  I loved coming upstairs and sitting in the editing room with you. We talked about photography, life, and looked at lots of pictures…we had a great time looking at your pictures.  I could never get enough of that….  I realized then that we shared a special language.

Towards the end of that 1st summer, my Dad was speaking to an old friend of the family, who was a pretty good amateur photographer. My Dad mentioned that I was working for a photographer in NY named Jay Maisel. At which point the friend said , Dave, do you know who Jay Maisel is? My dad was simply clueless, so his friend said, “ if Stephen had an internship in music with Leonard Bernstein, what would you think?  My Dad said , “I would be really impressed … Fantastic”  My dad’s friend then said, “ Dave, Jay Maisel is to photography what Leonard Bernstein is to music!”

Since that first summer, I began to realize that you were much more than a photographer and artist. You’re an engineer, (the pulley system to lift a 300lb air conditioner above the door in the main room), a comedian, martial artist, and a loving husband and a terrific Dad.   But most of all, you’ve been a great friend and mentor.  We’ve shared so many wonderful experiences together – too many stories to write here. I still grin when I think about the first time you met Bette and after you greeted her with “Hello,” you quickly followed with “So what exactly are your intentions?”  You’ve always been a straight shooter, and its one of the many qualities that I love about you.

Jay, on your 80th birthday, which is hard to believe, I feel so blessed to have you in my life! And by the way, you really do look MARVELOUS!  Seriously, you look and act like you’re just turning 60. I was there for your 50th and you look younger now then you did then… Bette and I look forward to celebrating with you and Linda soon.

Lots of Love,
Stephen and Bette