'Jay Myself': Film Review

Stephen Wilkes/Mind Hive Films
A fascinating look at an artist's life.
7/31/2019

Stephen Wilkes explores the vast home/studio of photographer Jay Maisel as he prepares to leave it after 48 years.

When I first moved to New York City, one of the mysteries I often daydreamed about was The Bank: a century-old, imposing six-floor building in one of the city's most desirable locations. Occupying the corner of Spring Street and Bowery, it was where trendy Soho met the cooler Lower East Side; but oddly, it hadn't been carved into boutiques or transformed into a luxury event-space. It was closed up and uninviting, with only some open windows (many foil-covered) on upper floors to hint that someone, perhaps Manhattan's luckiest squatters, lived inside. One rumor was that the place was owned by a photographer who shot the cover for a Miles Davis album. That sounded unlikely. But it was true, and what was inside was better than anything I'd imagined.

Stephen Wilkes doesn't linger on The Bank's mystique in Jay Myself; there's too much to look at inside, and too little time to do it. Influential photographer Jay Maisel (who shot Davis for Kind of Blue) bought the whole building in 1967 for barely over a hundred grand. By 2014, it cost three times that every year for taxes and upkeep. So he had to sell it. For $55 million.

Wilkes, then an aspiring photographer, met Maisel in 1979, soon becoming his assistant and mentee. Their friendship continued over the decades, and it's through this admiring lens that we are introduced to Maisel the artist and the man. Known for approaching commercial jobs like they were personal projects and for filling frames with bold, contrasting blocks of color, he earned the respect of magazine directors and fine artists alike. Duane Michals, referring to the man more often credited for creative use of color in photography, puts down William Eggleston, saying Maisel was doing more interesting things in the days before color was acceptable in art photos. And a great many of those things left physical traces of themselves in The Bank.

The documentary starts when Maisel has five months left in the property. Five months to sort through 72 rooms, spread over six vast floors that have become a physical manifestation of large chunks of the artist's mind. Over the decades, Maisel collected every kind of detritus that inspired him, either as a solitary thing of beauty or as an addition to an unfolding collection: interesting pieces of cardboard or medicine bottles; the paper sleeves VHS tapes used to come in; special-sized screws that only fit into machines that no longer exist. One whole room, he observes, holds nothing but various circle-shaped objects.

"I have stuff I should never have saved," he admits. But he had more than enough space, and he never expected to move out. Why wouldn't he keep something he might use in a picture some day? A crew of movers arrive a full three months before the day he's obligated to vacate. The astonished young men get lectures on what they can throw out and what must be packed — "None of this is garbage" — and their boss works alongside them, making the tough calls.

As that job grows more melancholy, Maisel and Wilkes have broader conversations about photography and the kind of life it allowed Maisel to live. The older man will interrupt a train of thought to point out a window and observe that there are more than a dozen good photos to be made from that vantage. Increasingly, he emphasizes the process over the product: Photographing, not the final photograph, is what he cares about most; the sense of play, the excuse the camera gives one to look at the world closely.

But first, there are 4,800 drawers of miscellaneous things to box up and send to storage.

Production companies: Mind Hive Films, Crooked Mile
Distributor: Oscilloscope
Director: Stephen Wilkes
Screenwriter: Josh Alexander
Producers: Henry Jacobson, Emma Tammi, Bette Wilkes
Executive producers: Stephen Wilkes, Jennie Wilkes, Michael Hirschmann
Directors of photography: Stephen Wilkes, Jason Greene
Editor: Armando Croda
Composer: Joel Goodman

78 minutes