I recently attended a presentation, slide-show (Power Point?), and ego trip by one if the true icons of commercial photography, Jay Maisel. Now when I was a beginning photographer, Jay’s name was up in lights. Along with Pete Turner, Hiro, Joel Meyerowitz and many other photographers who are sort of unknown today. Celebrity is fleeting in this industry, today’s icons are tomorrow’s dinosaurs. Jay’s work was marvelous. It combined a straightforward view of moments and color. He shot with very long lenses on 35mm cameras. He influenced the work of so many photographers, and rightly so. His background was painting and once at a presentation I was giving at the Maine Photo Workshop in 1986, Jay remarked during the Q&A, that one of my images reminded him of a Matisse. Go Jay!! In fact the entire project was based on the work of Matisse and Balthus. And it was all shot out of normal perspective before Photoshop was even a glint in Mother Adobe’s eye. Enough self-congratulations, this is about the icons of commercial photography, not me.
Jay is a “real” New Yorker. After almost 4 years in Portland I had almost forgotten the word “Schmuck” until Jay used it repeatedly that evening. He showed 980 photographs, and that is not a typo, really 980. His work is spectacular, but really we only saw about 98 photographs 10 versions of each. There were some real gems, but also some lumps of coal. It was sad for me to have so many young photographers watch this presentation and not realize what a genius he was…back in the day. I wanted to go up to him afterward and as one native New Yorker to another say, “Hey Schmuck, one word of advice…EDIT”. The kids, the under 35 set, thought it looked a lot like stock. That was a testament to today’s digital cameras (left to their own devices they take pretty, vibrant pictures) and the kid’s naivete. Jay’s work is so much more than simply pretty pictures. It’s about a lifelong vision and the ability to know the moment that that vision is truly realized.
But this is not a criticism of that presentation. It brought me back to thinking about the photographers who influenced me at the beginning of my career. Jay was one, Avedon was another, so was Hiro and Penn. But the strongest influence was a photographer I never met, Phil Marco.
When I was living in Paris and shooting a lot of table top, someone, I don’t remember who, sent me a calendar of Phil Marco’s table top photography. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. Although I was completely bowled over by the images, I only remember one. Well, I sort of remember it, I’m not completely sure. It was an eggplant sitting on dark brown/black earth with a couple of tiny puddles of water, like after a rain. It was dark, and soft, and you could smell the dampness. It captivated me. How could he do this in his studio and completely transpose me to an emotional, perhaps unreal, feeling of the essence of growth, farming, whatever. Then I saw it! Sort of to the side of a puddle of water, in the shadow, was a cricket. Holy shit, a cricket! Hardly noticeable, it wasn’t meant to be a photo of a cricket, but to me it was the most important element in the photograph. It took me to a different place. It really makes no difference if I accurately remember the composition of the photograph, I remember that cricket. It had the most profound influence on me. It made me put “unnecessary” wall outlets in my sets, aspirin bottles on window sills, and, when allowed, prescription bottles on night tables. Half-empty glasses of water in inconspicuous places are in so many of my photographs that we used to carry a special glass in our grip kit! At the time you would see a lot of photographs with a telephone (land-line, of course) with the receiver placed on a cushion, or an old Walkman with the head phones beside it. Boy, that was some real deep narrative going on! Nowadays I see lot’s of old film cameras used as props. What a joke!! Get Grandpa’s old Rolleicord and have it carelessly placed on a side table, maybe sitting on top of a copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh. After-all The Illiad is so last year. Phil Marco’s calendar made me realize the utter importance of props which don’t call attention to themselves, yet make a picture real. Props you feel rather than see.
Thank you, Phil Marco. I owe you.