Film

Review: Photographer Jay Maisel Ruminates on Art, Collections and Life in Jay Myself

For some reason, when I finally figured out that the title of this documentary on influential photographer Jay Maisel was based on a mishearing of his name, that amused me to such a degree that I found myself really invested in the long and impressive life and grumpy quirks of Maisel and the six-story, 37,000-sq.-ft. home/studio he purchased for a song back in 1969. Directed by fellow photographer Stephen Wilkes, Jay Myself catches up with the 88-year-old Maisel and his wife in 2015, as they prepare to move out of the building in its now-fully gentrified Bowery location (which he sold to a developer for a record price) for a much smaller (but still sizable) dwelling.

Jay Myself

Image courtesy of Gene Siskel Film Center

Since the move forced Maisel to pack up 72 rooms worth of collected objects—as well as his own photos and slides—the filmmaker (a former intern) thought it was the perfect time to have the artist reflect on his life and work as he went through decades’ worth of accumulation, which took 35 full-size moving trucks to extract. The resulting film is surprisingly emotional…to everyone except maybe the subject himself, who seems more fascinated at rediscovering forgotten corners of his life than anything else. Each room is arranged in a way that really only makes sense to Maisel, except that something about each is always very pleasing to the eye and naturally, very photographable as well.

To try and detail what each room contains, or even their themes, would be futile (“I have a room that’s just circles,” Maisel explains, and he isn’t wrong). In many instances, he’s taken apart objects we’re familiar with and re-arranged the pieces in new and interesting ways. He’s like a hoarder but with a detail-oriented mind. He’s creating his collection, and if you open up a small desk drawer containing the same kind of screws and ask to take just one, he’ll refuse you because it would ruin the collection—a collection that no one but he knows exists. Each room is cataloged to a certain degree with photographs of everything he’s built and created, so the idea that he has to move everything out seems almost inconceivable, especially since the vast majority of the building’s contents has to go into storage.

Director Wilkes only gives us a small fraction of Maisel’s celebrated career as background; he’s far more interested in watching the slow, laborious disassembly process—with Maisel all the while photographing and grumbling about it every step of the way. In the last few years, there have been a few documentaries about older New Yorkers living in landmark buildings who are forced to relocate (Maisel isn’t exactly forced, but the upkeep on his structure is too much to afford), and the cumulative effect of these works is both melancholy and captivating. You can’t help but be amazed at the objects people have collected over a lifetime, especially those who are artists and other creative types.

At one point during Jay Myself, Maisel declares that his style of photography can be summed up in two words: “Hey, look!” And the more we see of his work, the more awe-struck we become. He has an entire series of thousands of photos he took from the windows of the building, and all of humanity is somehow, incredibly represented. Maisel is a lovable curmudgeon, and I feel fortunate to have discovered him through this film and this beautifully deconstructive process.

The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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