Urban Legend

Jay Maisel is through the looking glass. What's black is white; what's white is black. The native New Yorker came to Dallas for a December weekend opening of an exhibition of his photographs at The Boyd Gallery, and it's actually colder here than it was in New York. There are more of his adjunct Dallas public relations people in the gallery tonight than there are the shoulder-to-shoulder buyers and viewers they've told him to expect, but it's early yet. Maisel hops up and down from the tiny table and chair they've put him behind to sell and sign his latest book of photos, Jay Maisel's New York. He greets the first arrivals--not too eagerly, preserving his New Yorker's reserve--before his handlers shepherd him back where they think he belongs. Maisel looks a little like playwright Neil Simon, but shaggier and younger. He's slightly smug and neatly if drearily dressed, tall, gray-haired; he could've stepped out of a Woody Allen movie. He tells a journalist he'll have to bump up their Saturday-morning interview because, he says, he wants to see what there is to shoot at the annual Neiman Marcus Christmas parade downtown. "It's supposed to rival Macy's, right?" he asks, adding that he's hoping for interesting people. Yeah, right, is the quick comeback from the Dallasites. "We've got our share of baton-twirling freaks," one gallerygoer says, "but you live in the ultimate freak show, don't you?"

Jay Maisel's looking glass, at home and away, is his lens; it's the perfect peephole, a beautiful eye for this beholder of freaks, regular people, places, and things around the world. And he's over the black-and-white thing in photography, eschewing darkroom work for the past decade in favor of retina-pulsing color. Maisel calls his Boyd Gallery show At Home and Away, but except for a couple of snaps of local kids in Morocco, all of the work on view captures his beloved New York City in lush cityscapes, river views with reflected buildings, and quirky vignettes of graffiti, traffic, row houses, and other hallmarks of the city. The work hanging in the intimate Boyd Gallery features Maisel's peerless perspectives, which at once tell of his fascination with his native environment while revealing his keen, unerring talent for observation. Familiarity, in this case, doesn't breed contempt. Maisel seems to delight in discovering visual geometry in the plane of a shimmering glass wall bisected with a line of shadow, or an embossed "GIRLS" notation on the red brick wall of a public restroom. Little things, he seems to tell his viewers, are our common experience, and universality can be inspiring.

A little piece of New York, in fact, belongs to Brooklyn-born Jay Maisel. He owns a former bank building in the Bowery, where he lives with his third--"and last"--wife, Linda, and his 7-year-old daughter, Amanda. "I had my first child at 62," he says, smiling. He won't say if she's his last. His studio and his vast stock of slides take up much of the six-story building. Maisel says he shoots constantly and saves everything since he found out someone was selling slides pilfered from his garbage cans. "I have some pictures nobody else has," he says. He has photographs of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat painting in his studio before Basquiat was cool. "He and a lot of other artists back then didn't have anyplace to paint, so they broke into abandoned piers and set up studios. I photographed all of them."

He admits that serendipity is half of his photographic success, but so is nonstop shooting. "And I'm not as good as I want to be," he says, even after countless merit awards and a lifetime achievement honor from the American Society of Media Photographers. Maisel says he increases the odds for the fortunate frame by taking his camera everywhere. "Last night, for instance," he says, "there weren't many people around downtown. But I immediately started shooting the buildings and the way the light reflects off and on them. You have a different light down here," he says. Maisel did commercial photography work for most of his life and stopped taking commissions only nine years ago. He's thoughtful about criticisms that his work still smacks of a lush ad campaign, that his crisp images are more likely to sell something than to sell themselves. "Basically I'm caught on the horns of a dilemma," he says. "My work is too arty-farty for a lot of commercial people. Yet I'm thought of as a commercial photographer." He says he made a conscious decision to stop taking lucrative, but limiting, ad agency work. "Life is not a dress rehearsal," he says. "After this, I'm gone. If I don't do it now, when am I going to do it?"

For his new book and the Boyd Gallery show, Maisel chose some of his most creative work in the city that never sleeps. There are still New York skylines at sunset, helicopter shots over a housing project in Queens, and eye-to-eye contact with the Statue of Liberty that reveal the photographer's inability to shake an instinct for every "Kodak moment," but viewers who bypass the mall-poster-art pix for Maisel's newer real deal will be rewarded. Candid street scenes, like the piano mover leaning against his pickup's tailgate to run an arpeggio on the black baby grand on a SoHo street, are plentiful. His composition of a pair of rooftop, summer-heat-beating sleepers on a bare mattress screams New York. The pure symmetry of angled skyscrapers framing the sky, with Maisel shooting straight up, freezing a single bird in mid-frame, exposes his talent, tenacity, and the ever-present quest for serendipity. "There were a lot of birds that day," Maisel says. "But I knew when I shot that one I got it."

Maisel is up early even after a late night at the gallery. He's finishing the phone interview, trying to get out of the Magnolia Hotel before the crowd gathers for the mid-morning parade. He's pleasant, funny, and accommodating on the phone but anxious to get off and get going. "People talk about the difficulty of a blank sheet of paper in a typewriter or a blank canvas," he says. "A photographer literally doesn't have that problem. His problem is to try to extract something from the whole panorama." This morning, the clean streets of a cold, cloudy downtown Dallas are his blank canvas. The marching bands and freakishly earnest young baton twirlers will be his subjects. "You still have to create the point of view to allow what happens to come and meet you," he says. "Sometimes people take pictures. I make pictures." He pauses, then seems to reconsider. "I don't really make the picture. I'm more like an observer. I don't want to manipulate it in any way. I didn't put the bird in that picture." Even as he seems hurried, he pauses again, intent on giving a sharper explanation of something that, to him, seems critically important. "The subject has to lead the photographer for the image to have any integrity to it," he says finally, more focused. "I want to go out in the morning completely empty and be filled up with whatever the subject matter has to say to me. And I always want more."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Annabelle Massey Helber