New York — Jay Maisel gets published in The New Yorker - in the centerfold. A shimmering, soft blue day has a helicopter buzzing lazily through it. The elegant crags of New York's skyscrapers only show up on the second glance, gently visible under the velvety surface, as if they had gone swimming. And only at third glance do you see the writing on the bottom and realize it's an advertisement for helicopters. For a couple of minutes you were up in that humid blue sky, gazing across New York, right where the eye of Maisel put you.
His photographs are breathtaking; brilliantly colored; and splashed, unsigned , all over some of the best magazines.
He wasn't planning to take this picture when he did. He was up in a helicopter just surveying the scene when he noticed how strange the light was. This picture was the result. ''I don't structure photographs in advance,'' he says. ''I might structure them at the moment of shooting, but I don't really go out and say, 'Well, what we're going to do is this, that, and the other thing.' I'd rather try to respond to what happens in front of me.'' The wonder, then, is what happens in front of him.
Some of his pictures look like trick photography. There's one of a building with three windows. The windows are facing you, but each has a totally different reflection. One has a wistfully pink and gray sky. Another, one antler of a double streetlight. Another, a painted sign that says ''Blue Star Line.'' The images are all perfectly clear, but you can't believe they actually happened. As in a dream or a fairy tale, you feel compelled to choose one of the views, in case it leads to a hidden kingdom. Maisel saw it one day walking down the street, and he insists the windows really looked like that, and he was just as amazed as the viewer, so he took the picture.
His friend Joel Meyerowitz, who made a name for himself as an artist with his book of color photographs, ''Cape Light,'' says ''Jay's biggest following and celebrity is in the world of commercial photography, and he is revered there as a real heavyweight professional with a great appetite and an engaging eye.''
Maisel's pictures emblazon corporate reports, urge quiet reflection over a new line of motor homes, and occasionally hang in museums. He takes many of his personal photos while on assignment for corporations, and will sell you a dye transfer - a high-quality print made from a slide - for your private collection. The same thing you see as art may show up over the logo of a conglomerate.Between art and commercial work, says Meyerowitz, ''he doesn't make a distinction. And probably Rubens didn't make a distinction, either, when he made things for himself and when he made things on commission.''
After looking at Maisel's pictures, you forget about making a distinction. Dye transfers line the offices and lobby of the former bank where he lives with his wife, Suzanne, on New York's Bowery. He bought the bank in 1968 and has been working on it ever since. The lobby now is a great hall with glossy wood floors and leftover mahogany and marble window details, behind which his assistants keep track of his vast stock of slides. He has over a million, and he keeps them , naturally, in the vault. He sells the use of the slide, not the slide itself, so he keeps everything. He even keeps the bad ones, since a few years ago it was discovered that slides were being sold from his garbage cans.
He is an almost mythically tall man, with long legs, a big chest, big hands, big eyes, a thick hank of steel-gray hair, a Brooklyn accent, and an impatient, inquiring manner. When, during a lull in the interview, he said, ''You must have some questions there you're forgetting to ask me,'' the reporter realized he had already read all the questions visible in her notebook and was wondering if there was anything more substantial on the next page. This is not a man to interview. This is a man to walk around and survey, like you would a mountain. Once you get into questioning range, he can size you up before you can even adjust the scale to take him in properly.
The photographs lining the upstairs rooms are equally arresting. The colors are brilliant, and make you want to go back out in the world again to check if that really happens.
These are luscious pictures, some taken from helicopters of sprawling landscapes, and some taken on the street of ordinary people who are outlandishly beautiful, like the black child in a chrome-yellow warm-up suit, standing in front of a brilliant green and red wall, blowing a pink bubble. In another, one black and one white dove perch in a yellow window frame against a blue wall. The brush strokes are still visible in the blue paint, and it seems to move if you look at it too long, as if the wall were painting itself, the picture making itself up as you stand there.
It's not surprising that he was trained by Joseph Albers, a constructivist painter who explored color relationships. But it is surprising that this luminous, distractingly gorgeous work is used to sell helicopters, fertilizer, dye, elevators, and corporations. Surprising to the viewer, maybe. Maisel doesn't see any reason for surprise.
He pays the same attention to his commercial work as his personal work. Then again, ''If you're really lucky, you can structure your work, on rare occasions, to where you're doing exactly what you would like to do. Which is to wander around, blindly looking for things, without any preconceived notion. That's the way I like to do it.'' He describes one ''dream assignment'' for a fertilizer company that was going to build plants in Africa, but didn't have anything built yet: go to Africa and shoot anything he wanted.
To most people, this would be mind boggling, but Maisel starts rattling off African facts: ''It's nice in a country like Liberia, because you can drive around the country in a day. Now, in the Sudan, there are no roads to get out of Khartoum. Once you're in Khartoum, you have roads, but if you're driving out, you need a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and if you want to go to the next town, which is Port Sudan, it's six days away by car, and you've got to have a four-wheel-drive car. Or you could fly there, except that there are no flights. . . . What you end up doing is just winging it as best you can.
''And on that particular job, I know Africa a little bit and I know that things are not always organized the way they should be. So I said: What I want is, I don't want to see telexes that you've sent to these people, I want to see telexes from them; I want to see letters from them, saying that they know I'm coming.''
Maisel is good at getting there, wherever ''there'' is by his lights. ''You find that you have to do many things, more than just lift up the camera and shoot, and so you get involved in it in a very physical way. You may find that the picture you want to do can only be made from a certain place, and you're not there, so you have to physically go there. And that participation may spur you on to work harder on the thing, . . . because in the physical change of position you start seeing a whole different relationship.'' He took a picture of the Manhattan skyline with the Citicorp building blazing in the sunset from a place he won't reveal, because he says it was illegal and dangerous to be there.
To look at Maisel's photographs is to gaze from awesome pinnacles or bleak outposts onto swaths of earth that are, for the moment, perfectly lovely. If you thought about it, you'd get dizzy just looking down at the magazine in your lap.
In American Photographer magazine, he gave photographers shooting from helicopters a helpful hint: ''Put gaffer tape on the safety belt buckle so it doesn't open accidentally.'' This is a person who not only takes photographs from helicopters, but also has favorite helicopter pilots. ''Gotta have a good pilot, because other guys - 'Zzrrroo! Get it?' '' he yells, imitating a swooping helicopter and hack pilot yelling over engine noise. ''What you need is a guy who is so still that you sort of feel like it's OK to get out and walk around, and some of them can be that good.
''Maisel delights in his own prowess and that of others. He takes photographs of executives for annual reports, and - for someone who wears blue jeans, a workshirt, and aviator glasses - and lives in rather alternative housing - he is quite appreciative of the people in pin-stripe suits who work in skyscrapers. ''Most of these guys, when they get to the top, there's a good reason that they're at the top.''
Of course, he meets them on his own terms. When he was photographing the chairman of Standard Oil of Ohio, the conversation got around to the high price of heating oil, ''and I said something about 72 rooms, and he said, 'You have 72 rooms?' and I said, 'Nobody said you had to be the richest person in this room.' '' When he delivers the punchline, his voice becomes so sweetly persuasive that you can imagine the chairman was charmed. ''A lot of these guys are so surrounded by yes-men all the time, probably the only time they get any abuse is at home,'' he says. ''So this makes them feel at home.''
We are sitting in a sort of conference room behind the bank lobby, at a board-room-style table, with photos hanging all around us. He points to one of a sunblasted-beige and faded-red wall with Africans standing in front of it, but the reporter's eye has boggled for the time being. Slightly protuberant with heavy, strong-looking lids, Maisel's eyes don't look like they ever boggle. They are hungry eyes, always looking for more. Joel Meyerowitz says of the vision behind his photographs: ''It's appetite. You have to be hungry for these things to see it.'' When Maisel looks at slides, he slips his glasses up on his forehead and hunches over with the concentration of a jeweler shifting his loupe to ogle a gem. During the interview, we only cross glances occasionally, his eyes busy roaming the walls for illustrations of his points and checking the progress of the photographer. He has a condensed way of looking at one that seems to take everything in at once, so his eyes can go back to work as he talks.
Even when he doesn't get a dream assignment, he works like a stevedore, or an artist, depending on your point of view. John Morrison, an art director for Campbell-Mithun, an advertising company in Minneapolis, went with him to photograph Winnebago motor homes in North Dakota. He says he was ''a little concerned because of his superstar status. I thought: 'Does he really want to go to North Dakota and shoot motor homes? Will I be getting the back of his hand?' ''
Not at all, as it turned out. Not only did Maisel shoot from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. for six days straight, Mr. Morrison claims he also changed the very sunrises and sunsets. ''That week we had glorious sunrises, sunsets, a thunderstorm. I told him 'I've never seen this kind of light before,' and he said: 'It's always around. You just don't see it.' ''
After a week with him and five Winnebagos, Morrison says, ''I'm still amazed what he could do with such an ugly product,'' and he is overwhelmed by Maisel's ''energy and love for what he does.'' Most photographers, he said, would have taken one Winnebago out for one day. Taking five out for a week paid off. At one point they had three of them in a circle. One was back-lit by a glorious sunset; one was front-lit, and the third had a storm front, complete with lightning, behind it. ''It was a joy,'' Morrison said, ''but I wouldn't want to tell him, because he'd raise his rates again.''
After all, Maisel says, ''You do have to give them a solution to their problem.'' But, he quotes one of his teachers, photographer Alexey Brodovitch, as saying, ''Do the assignment for yourself even if you're doing it for them; do it for yourself as well as for them. . . .'' He takes the picture the client asks for, and he takes the picture for himself. Often they choose his picture.
Getting his picture and their picture means taking a lot more. He recently came back from a 40-day assignment with 24,000 slides. ''When you go out and shoot, you can, if you're careful enough, come back to the job with a very few rolls and everything will be perfectly exposed and everything will be perfectly framed. And if you do that, you know you're not really earning your money, because you should be trying harder and you should be failing some. . . . You have to have a lot of 'overage' so that your failures aren't the only thing you come home with. You've got to have a lot of things that were magnificent failures, but you want some magnificant successes.''
One picture shows a truck coming down a hill. Behind the truck is a bruise-colored sky, but a brilliant sun is shining on it. A man and woman inside are shading their eyes, and the truck is so bright with glinting paint that the sunlight looks as if it had been smeared on with a putty knife. No wonder the truck driver and the woman are shading their eyes; you can see the force with which the light is hitting them. This, obviously, is not the everyday way of looking at light, and he probably didn't get the picture by obeying what the film box said to do when it's bright-cloudy.
''I have an idea of what can go wrong is why I'm bracketing the thing (shooting the same scene at a variety of exposures). And I also have an idea of what can go right if I bracket. What I'm not sure of is where that thing kicks in. It's not an exact thing with light, because light is not exact when you're out in the real world. . . .
''When you're shooting outside, you know in certain situations what it's going to be, but your eye is so easily fooled that you may have less or more light than you think, you may have redder or bluer light than you think. . . .
''He sees light in more colors than anyone would dream of. New York skyscrapers in his photographs change color so often they are like characters changing costumes. As the sun sets against them, they are yellow and look old and porous as fossil shells against a green and black sky. You can't believe they're still standing. Or the sky is a shiny navy blue, and the buildings look red hot, glamorous, and brand new, like golden radio transistors. Another sky is littered with fireworks, the Brooklyn Bridge is pale green, and the buildings are grumpy tan and brown, in contrast to the silly scribbling of sparks and glows.
His way of looking at color changes yours. The art director was right about new sunsets in North Dakota. It happened in Brooklyn Heights, too. After I saw Maisel's pictures, shadows I had thought of as gray were sky blue. ''Thank you, '' he said when I told him. ''You can do that with the Impressionists, too.'' The difference between the Impressionists and him, he says, is that ''What I do is less painstaking. The perception of what goes on in front of me and the transmission of that to you is less of a physical problem. It's more of an electronic, chemical, mechanical problem. . . . A photographer's art is more in his perceptions than his execution. In a painter, I think the perception is only the first step, and then you have a kind of hard road of execution.'' A photographer's execution is important, too, ''if you're not shooting in the right direction, it doesn't matter how well you're shooting.''
He shoots in some very interesting directions. You get the feeling, from the yarns he tells about his travels, that he isn't just doing commercial photography to support himself as an artist. He likes being sent off the way only big corporations can send him. He seems to have been everywhere, and to know the world the way he says he ''knows Africa a little bit.''
Money, travel, and pressure to perform no doubt have a lot to do with the energy and vigor of his photographs. But he's also in it for the wonder of what he can see, and that comes across in abundance. He says he likes to go out ''wide-eyed and naive'' to take pictures. I asked how he stays naive, and he looked surprised. ''It's easy to stay naive. You've got to be a little childlike.'' What opens Maisel's eyes are places ordinary people never see, and if access to those places keeps him doing commercial work, it also feeds that hungry and peculiar vision that makes his work so rare. ''
When I was in Mexico, I got to go to an old-fashioned steel mill for a couple of days. There's nothing that's more fun.'' What was it like? ''Hell,'' he says delightedly. ''It must be a little bit what hell is like, except that you don't have to get intimately involved.'' He also has visions waiting in airports (a hand spreading what looks like golden lace on a window with a brush) or standing on his roof (scribbling fireworks and other marvels). The appeal for him is ''that business of finding out every day something new, something that you weren't aware of.''
It's hard to imagine there's much left he isn't aware of, but wherever he is, remarkable things happen in a new light that's been there all along.