Happy Birthday Jay: John Ellis

As Jay’s newest assistant in an obviously long, illustrious career, I’ve had the least amount of time to get to know him personally. And still, in my first year of working with him, I feel like I’ve been exposed to a lifetime’s worth of wisdom, culture, art, business acumen, passion, and above all, enthusiasm.

I’m often in charge of the “guided tour” of Jay’s building when Jay’s not around. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job, because so often our guests are left literally speechless – and usually after only getting to the third floor (of six). Although I am able to repeat the stories Jay’s told me of various parts of the building and the work it contains, when I see the looks of sheer awe on their faces as the sensory overload kicks in, I can only tell them, “ditto.” But what really makes seeing that look on their faces so great is knowing that it’s not just the fact that Jay owns such such a big place – plenty of people own big buildings in New York City. It’s the fact that every inch of the 35,000 square feet in this place reflects the genuine authenticity of Jay’s immense character in all ways artistic, professional, and weird – and that’s what strikes people the hardest. Greg Heisler summed it up better than most when he once said that Jay’s work (and life) is “absolutely about appreciating the fact that God gave him eyeballs to see stuff.”

And that brings me to my next point. Aside from calling such a place my office for the past year, I’ve also had the pleasure of interacting with Jay’s circle of friends and family, all of whom share both a deep respect for Jay, and an insatiable compulsion to bust his balls. As the rookie and the techie nerd in Jay’s life, I thought it best to gather some of his closest friends for some veteran online ball-busting on his birthday.

So to Jay, I want to wish you a happy 80th birthday, and thank you for all the generosity, patience, wisdom, advice, and enthusiasm you’ve shown me in such a relatively brief time. I raise my proverbial glass to you, and will leave the roasting and toasting to the pros.


P.S. So it’s not even lunch time yet, and there are already a few blog posts from around the web celebrating Jay’s birthday. I’ll keep updating them here for everyone to check out.

Seth Resnick – An Early Happy Birthday to Jay Maisel (same as Seth’s toast below)

Scott Kelby – Jay Maisel: Happy 80th Birthday!

Ed Broberg – Jay Maisel

Happy Birthday Jay: Paul Postash

There are more anecdotes then I could possibly write about by Jay’s birthday this month. Some were hysterically funny, makes me laugh just thinking about them, and others are more like we were hysterical at the moment, like trying to make a U-turn at the entrance to the Queens-Midtown Tunnel during rush hour to get a sunset shot…

But I never considered myself a good storyteller, and would rather take this opportunity to sincerely thank Jay for what he has given me, all these years, since we were “so” young around 40 years ago. Like a child is taught to walk or ride a bike, Jay has given me the keys within myself to open my eyes to the “design, color, and light” of everything around you. He was at times a real pain in the ass (if I may use some of Jay’s vernacular) working for him when I was in my 20′s, and I didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was to have this “gift” of mentorship to learn from. But any issues I had quickly melted away when we got to eat around the table together on the 6th floor, when we got to look late into the night at the shoot in the editing room, to share the wondrous moments together when the light was beautiful, to get my butt kicked in a game of one-on-one or horse, to joy in the removal of a patina pretty much anywhere in the bank, or on the huge entry doors to the Duomo di Milano. He never treated anyone, including me, disrespectfully. I always felt like his friend, even when he was pissed at me, probably rightfully so. As a matter of fact, it amuses me to think when I hear him tell someone that I was one of his best assistants, how bad some of the others must have been. No disrespect guys (you know who you are).

This sharing of “vision” is very unique, and might need explaining to some who haven’t had the same opportunity. I liken it to a time I had with my son. When he was in Grade school he got interested in model trains, and it didn’t take much to get me hooked. Well, for about a year everywhere I went I was looking at the scene before me as a potentially great “layout” for our trains. It was a way of seeing, to compose these things we see before us, and appreciate it in a very visual sense. With that I evolved into the “seeing” person I am today.

I heard a friend of his refer to Jay as God. Jay, understand, is not your average person. He is a “force”, as anyone who knows him will not argue, who always showed strength and tenderness when needed. Those are difficult to put together, but he always seemed to manage it better then anyone I’ve ever known. I grew from my association with Jay by watching how he went about the world interacting with people in both social and business situations. He always had his own way of dealing with it all, and at times I used to marvel how up-front, bold, and “Jay” he could be, until I finally realized that we all should be who we are 24/7. It allows you to trust the man for his deep honesty with you.

He has no false facades. Just look at the way he dresses.

Photos courtesy of Robert Theile (left) and Paul Potash (right)

And so often he is with a great sense of humor. A dear friend of ours both, who was an assistant to Jay at the time, set up an art director. Jay had been on an assignment for a couple of weeks, a big shoot, and had the A.D., the A.E., the client and others all anxiously awaiting in their fancy uptown conference room for the slide show of the results of all this money they gave him. So Jay’s assistant walks in, everyone seated around and waiting, carrying 5 or so Carousel boxes of rejected slides and as all eyes are on him, he feints a huge lunging trip forward, spewing out thousands of slides going everywhere; very ‘Saturday Night Live’, but years before them. Of course they all about flipped out, but soon were calmed by Jay telling them it was a setup, and the real slides were then shown. I don’t remember if Jay was in on this from the start, but he might as well have been. He treasures the ability to make others laugh, and has said people like Robin Williams should be made into saints for their contributions putting smiles on peoples faces.

At about this time I’m sure he has said, or is thinking, if he is reading this, that I got it all wrong. I know better then to argue now. It has only taken me maybe four decades to learn.

It is wonderful, and encouraging, to see a man who at 80 still goes everywhere with his camera, still enjoys as much as ever the pleasure of the world around him, and who for many years now has been so generous to let others share his vision through workshops.

Speaking of workshops, one of the pleasures that we share is the love of wood (the kind that you get from trees, in this case). I made most of my living as a woodworker, but when he showed me what a million-grit sandpaper could do to a piece of wood, he raised the bar, and as a result I wasn’t been able to get anything out of the shop without at least a thousand-grit going over (I had to make a living at this).

I love the fact that Jay doesn’t get cable TV, and doesn’t spend countless hours in front of the computer. And if anyone in this day and age should have a 6-story building filled mostly with his stuff, Jay...

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...

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


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