Happy Birthday Jay: Mel Di Giacomo

To whom it may concern or anyone remotely interested in Jay Maisel:

I don’t understand what all the fuss is about… so he’s taken a couple of nice photos. Alright maybe more than a couple. Let’s be honest, if it weren’t for the photo nerds he’s hired for the past 40 years to make technical decisions for him, he’d be where he truly belongs: on Delancey Street selling Schmattas to Polish immigrants.

From the Jay Maisel Studio cork board.

The man does not know an F-stop from a bus stop – seriously. And nobody likes him! (Marty Forcher liked him, but Marty liked everybody.) His parents did not like him. His mother used to pack his lunch in a road map. When Jay came home from Hebrew school , he found his parents had moved. Speaking of Hebrew school, the Italian kids on Mulberry Street would beat the snot out of him because Jay didn’t speak any English. He was bi-lingual however. He spoke Yiddish and Hebrew fluently. You can just imagine how well that went over with the “wops” who walloped him weekly. My Pisanos used to stuff his sweet Peyus into cannoli shells. For a decade, he was a poster child for Ferrara’s. I know for a fact this didn’t go over well with the Sicilians, i.e. having a 6’4″ Jew wearing cannoli shells, when the average height of my warm-skinned forebears was 5 feet.


Fast forward to 2011. Nineteen sixty-eight seems so long ago. We were wild, competitive and mischievous. Always ready to top one another, not with images, but with jokes.

I did beat him once at hoops after 17 consecutive losses. (Nobody beats Mel Di Giacomo 18 times in a row.) He insists that only Walter Iooss beat him. He wouldn’t accept that a 5’7″ Sicilian with 2 artificial hips kicked his butt. Figuratively of course. I can’t get my leg high enough for a literal butt-kicking.

Why we are friends after 40 years is simple. We are passionate about photography. Jay shoots in color, I prefer black and white, and we appreciate one another’s achievements.

We are also too old to have children under 20. I am sure I speak (in English) for Jay when when I say our kids are the motivating factor in our lives. I am enormously pleased that Amanda shares L.A.’s Italian blood. Some may point out that Amanda and Linda are only part Italian. Look at it this way.. the Lord knows what he’s doing – some people can’t take a full dose of Italian, so he gives one all that they might handle. I am only half Italian and I’m half Sicilian.

Basta cosi, sufficiently with shameless Sicilian passion and a kiss on both cheeks.

-Melchior Anthony Pasquale Di Giacomo

P.S. One thing I can say with certainty is that Jay is a better human being than he is a photographer. If you do not believe me, pick up a Yiddish to English dictionary and find the word “mensch.” There is no written definition, simply a picture of Jay Maisel.


Happy Birthday Jay: Seth Resnick

Photo Courtesy of Seth Resnick

I met Jay formally in 1978 when he came to speak at Syracuse University. Stephen Wilkes and I were room mates and Jay stayed at our house. Stephen decided that he needed to work for Jay and I was mesmerized by Jay’s images. His work set off something inside me that made me realize what I love about photography. I also admired his sense of business and his opposition to work for hire. Lastly, my grandfather smoked cigars and Jay smoked a brand that my grandfather smoked so I instantly found that Jay automatically invoked some of my fondest childhood memories. Since 1978 I have stayed friends with Jay and my admiration grew and continues to grow. He was and still is my mentor and I am simply blown away not only by his work but also by the vast quantities of amazing images that he continually produces. I started to carry a camera with me at all times and attribute my shoulder problems to my mentor. When I started teaching I would always show students work of people I admired and somewhere along the line I started telling folks that my photographic mentor was God. I would explain that my God was a little different than theirs because mine smokes a cigar and carries a Nikon. To this day I still tell every class stories about God.

I could write a book about Jayism’s and stories about God but a few particular stories stand out above all the rest. I have heard Jay say that one of the most embarrassing moments in his life involved me. I am honored… I had my two girls with me. Paige was about 11 and Karalyn was about 6 and we were driving from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Santa Fe where I was going to be teaching a course. Along the way I am telling my girls that Santa Fe is very much unlike Boston or New York. It is a gorgeous peaceful place where you don’t even need to lock your doors and a place where kids can ride bikes and play without adults always watching. The girls were very excited to see this Utopia. We pull into the parking lot at the Santa Fe Workshops and I park my car. I notice that on the opposite side of the parking lot in my rear view mirror there is another car and all I can see are two legs and the open door. I don’t think twice about it and tell the girls that I just want to make sure that there is someone still at the school because it is now after-hours. I open my car door and hear a deep voice which says.” Hey we don’t want your type here,” Get the fuck out of here,” “Go Home,” and a few other foul expressions. Both of my girls are instantly scared and I feel like an idiot because Santa Fe is just like Boston and New York. I calmly tell them that it is probably a homeless person and we will all just hold hands and walk to the building. As I am walking the “homeless guy” gets out of the car and my girls are terrified. As I am holding them I turn and the homeless guy is Jay and his face is bright red. I look at him and laugh and say “Jay what are you doing here?” not realizing that he was teaching the week earlier. My girls say outloud, “You know this guy!?” To this day Jay still cringes at the story, but yes, I did know that guy and it was a classic introduction to my family…

I think the other classic Jay story was a few years back and I was having dinner with LA, Amanda and Jay. Jay and I were yapping away and Amanda looked at me and said “You really remind me of my father.” I replied “Thank you, that is quite a compliment.” Amanda replied, ” I didn’t mean it as a compliment…”

Well, I would write a few more but Jay won’t read these anyways and God will probably say ‘What d’fuck is a blog?’

Happy 80th, God!

All the best,
Seth Resnick


Geoff Green

Photo Courtesy of Mel Di Giacomo

I came to know Jay and his family only after I was hired as Jay’s first assistant. It is surprising I was offered the job, you see Jay boasts of his technical ineptitude and yet he brought me on. A recent graduate with a degree in anthropology, working as a waiter on the Upper East Side and not a clue what a strobe pack and head were. That’s the thing about Jay, he was more concerned I appreciated the education I had – he asked during the interview if I regretted not getting a degree in photography or art, I replied no, studying people and cultures can apply to anything – and was willing to learn, keep a keen eye, but most importantly, push a broom. He told me later my candor was appreciated during the interview. In fact I was too naïve to realize who I was interviewing with, not being nervous or impressed by Jay and the building/studio was my greatest asset. The indoor basketball court made me think I was in an old school gymnasium, not a former bank.

Luckily Jay relies mostly on that big old sun in the sky as a light source. Of course it meant early mornings, late evenings, looking at shadows and a lot of time for lunch. No not lunch for me, I was running film to the lab, looking at clip tests and stressing over exposure for no real reason, each roll was always so heavily bracketed the clip tests were worthless. This was in the pre-digital era. You might be led to think I had it easy, Jay doesn’t actively light a scene. He uses what is available, waits for the right time, or finds the best vantage point and preaches traveling light; carrying too much gear becomes cumbersome and limits your ability to shoot. Unless of course you have an assistant, then it is everything but the kitchen sink. Ever try carrying a 500mm f4 plus all the usual gear (camera bodies, film, batteries, other lenses, unused model releases, never used speedlights, etc) while attempting to keep up through the crowds of a St. Patrick’s Day or Yankee parade? Good thing he’s tall and I could spot his head with a camera pressed to it from a distance. And don’t forget you have to keep those bodies loaded with film, oh man would he get cranky when the next camera wasn’t ready. Ugh, thinking about it is making my shoulders sore. I hear he is happy with the new 28-300mm, where was that when I needed it?

All in all it was a great experience working for Jay. The opportunity to explore the massive film and print files, travel, meet and build relationships with the crazy cast of characters he calls friends. Not to mention fixing toilets, cleaning the sidewalk, pretending I had a clue when replacing light switches and checking on the always temperamental boiler. But most importantly Jay was and is my surrogate NYC father, his family has always felt like my family and this is what I appreciate most. Thanks Jay – Happy Birthday!

- Geoff Green, 1st Assistant 1997-2001

Sam Garcia

There are, I suppose, a few things I remember which in many ways define the Jay Maisel experience.

Talk about compatibility. The man bought a refrigerator with no freezer and no ice making capability and managed to find in the World a woman to live with who’s OK with that.

Cameras love to screw with Jay. Over the past twenty five years or so, it has not been unusual to answer a call from Jay, while he was teaching a workshop class somewhere, asking why his camera was doing ‘this’ or NOT doing what he expected it to. This call comes almost inevitably on day two of a workshop–don’t ask me why. In the last couple of years I’ve found it easier to simply call him first and ask, ‘What did you break?’ If I time it right I can usually get him to start laughing in front of a clueless class.

He was, for a period of time and in the rarified upper levels of high concept publications, often referred to by his editors, clients, and photographer peers, with not just a little genuine reverence, as, The Sun King. A name indicating his sheer mastery of, and apparent dominance over, that celestial orb.

I recall an afternoon in Denver, Colorado during the prep days for that eventual monster photo book best seller, A Day In The Life Of America, when, having gone out for a quick bite, Jay and I were sitting in almost the dead center of a large indoor atrium restaurant. I realized Jay’s head, hair, and glasses were all beautifully backlit by an incredibly golden shaft of light. The catch was–as there were NO direct sun exposure windows in the immediate vicinity–I was incapable of determining WHERE the hell the light was coming from. And theoretically, I know a little bit about this stuff.

I remember looking around the large room. Not a single other lunch patron had as much as a specular highlight on any part of their anatomy.
I wondered at the time if he just naturally generated the stuff. Like a halo from the head of…well, you know. Jay was, by the way, completely oblivious to the situation. I didn’t mention it, and I refused to give in to the myth by photographing the evidence, but, ‘The Sun King’, has floated around in the back of my brain when discussing Jay ever since that day.

My favorite story might be apocryphal, but knowing Jay as long as I have I’m inclined to accept it. (And if it’s not true, it should be…)

Jay, the Shining Beacon of Enlightened and Empowered Negotiation–the torch bearer we all emulate–storming out of a meeting with a client, where business aspects of a proposed shoot had been in discussion:

“I refuse to work for someone who’s a bigger sonuvabitch than I am…!”

Now, however, let me counter that with:

September 19th., 2001 – The World still in shock and fear as America tried to deal with the events of a week before. Everyone – especially in the New York City region, was unquestionably traumatized in some fashion, most people circled their family wagons and hunkered down listening to the news and knowing that all our lives had changed, but to what degree we were as yet unaware. But some folks, including me, had scheduled aspects of their jobs which needed to move forward if there was to be a return to normalcy. I was still teaching the U.S. traveling ‘Nikon Shool’ in those days. With air traffic a locked-down mess at that stage, there was the next School, scheduled to take place just outside of Pittsburgh – a do-able one day’s drive from my home on Long Island.

On that clear afternoon, with a fortunately lightly trafficked Pennsylvania interstate, I had the thrill of enjoying a ride almost as violent as the Coney Island Cyclone, when – it was determined later – the back left tire of my Land Rover Discovery disintegrated for some reason, smashing the back of my car into the center concrete dividing wall, where the vehicle rode up the wall enough to, at about 60mph, quickly flip the Land Rover onto the roof, as, fully conscious, I watched the road racing towards me through the instantly demolished wind screen, while I–well seat belted in–slid, in my inverted amusement park ride, across the three lanes, from the center lane to completely off the pavement, where, catching the dirt like a plow blade, the shredded, distorted roof had enough leverage combined with velocity to flip the whole damn thing BACK onto the now, all-four-blown tires, and the dead crate stopped just past the front bumper of the truck which had been in the right lane and managed to miss me by inches.

Battered, bruised, a separated bone in my left shoulder/collar region, but otherwise really ok–the left arm was put into a sling–I was actually able to get to the School location, barely 30 miles from the crash site, and with most of the set-up work performed by my partner, teach the 2 days, and realize I now had no way to get home easily.
I couldn’t drive.
There was no train.
There were no flights.

Some people mouth friendships, some people are your friends.

In a call to Jay to simply be pitiful and elicit sympathy from someone so I could feel more sorry for myself, what I did not expect, had not even considered a possible response, Jay asked precisely where I was, got Linda on the phone for more details, arranged quickly to rent a car, and then drove across the state of Pennsylvania with his wife and daughter on board, all to rescue, and return safely to Long Island in the company of loving friends, my sorry butt.

That’s my kind of a ‘sonuvabitch’…

Sam Garcia
(And I would be remiss if I did not add: Copyright Sam Garcia 2011, All Rights Reserved)

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