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Notes from Jay Maisel: Don't Worry, Have Confidence, and Stick to Your Guns

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In this excerpt from It's Not About the F-Stop, photographer Jay Maisel shares some of his photography stories, from improvising deep inside a mine, to working with supermodel Elle Macpherson, to shooting his way across Africa.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

This is one of the few times I’ve consciously repeated myself. I had been sent to do a photograph in a coal mine. What sticks in my mind is that we worked around down in the mines for a photograph and the pickings were slim. If you’ve ever been in a mine, you know what I mean.

In any case, we finally found a rock face in which they were inserting sticks of dynamite. There were wires and technical paraphernalia all over the place. It was chaotic and bizarre. I loved it.

When I did commercial work, I always worked with an assistant and I carried strobes with me. I told the assistant to set up the strobes so we would have raking light on the surface. That’s what I wanted.

While he was doing that, I was picking through my lenses to figure out which one to use.

At this point, I have to tell you we had descended about a mile deep and then walked about three-quarters of a mile from the elevator into one of the fingers of the mine.

I picked the lens I wanted. The miners told me, “Be quick. We got to blast this in 20 minutes to stay on schedule.” My assistant, who had set up the stands for the strobe lights, walked over to me in said in a faint whisper, “I’m sorry, but I forgot the strobe head.”

I turned to the client and said, “On second thought, strobe lighting is going to destroy the quality of this shot, I’m going to shoot it without lights.” Then I told my assistant to pack it up.

As we left the shoot and headed toward the next possible shot, we came back to the elevator and the assistant whispered again, “Since you can’t use the strobes, can I just leave it here? We’ll pick it up later.”

I smiled with what must’ve been an evil smile and said, “I don’t want to embarrass you by letting the client know you f*¢%ed up. Just carry it with you the rest of the day.”

We couldn’t find much worth shooting. I was looking at the miners with their lights built into their helmets and thought, “Thank God! I’ve got an idea.”

I said to the client, “I need four guys for the shot I want to do. I also need one of your machines to go back and forth to raise as much dust as possible.”

Once we raised the dust, I put two miners behind the other two. They backlit the front guys by lighting up the dust, and silhouetted the two in front, who also had their headlamps on, and that was the picture. I bracketed the hell out of it. It took all of two minutes, we coughed our way out and that was the shot they used as a cover.

Several years later, a different mine, different client. This guy wants a picture of “machine 3926.” This is a mine where you can’t use lights at all and machine 3926 is about 60 feet of shiny steel alternating with pitch darkness.

I took one look and said, “No f*¢%ing way am I going to waste my time with that.” “I saw your last annual report and whoever did shoot it was a genius because he got a beautiful shot of it and there’s no point in doing it again, but worse.”

I said, “Don’t worry, I’m going to give you a better shot. I need four guys with headlamps,” etc. He answers, “But there will be no equipment.”

I tell him, “Look, you’ll love it and you’ll look great for doing it.”

I shot it, and the brass loved it. It won all kinds of awards, they used it for the cover, and he came out smelling like a rose.

And, to tell the truth, I have no idea in which of the two mines I shot this.

Being Polite

I was in Milan, Italy. I was photographing the general managers of a major corporation in the major cities of Italy.

This was Guido—sweet guy, extremely polite, which was the problem, but I didn’t understand that at the time. I was free to shoot anywhere and any way I liked. I thought the Galleria, a very high, glass-covered arcade with shops and wonderful light, would work. It was a symbol of Milan. I would relate Guido to the Galleria.

The only problem was that when I placed Guido where I wanted him and turned to go shoot from a distance, I would turn back and Guido would be standing right next to me.

You’ve probably figured out already that Guido spoke a very fragmented, fractured English, and I, being American, spoke no Italian. (Full Disclosure: I love the Italian language and actually took lessons for quite some time, the results of which were completely invisible, unheard, and pathetic.)

I took Guido back to where I wanted him and this time I backed away so I could watch him, and I’ll be damned if he just didn’t keep on following me no matter where I went. I was thoroughly pissed off. “What am I doing wrong? I know pantomime. Why can’t I get him to stay there?”

Fortunately, a friend who worked for the same firm came by and I literally grabbed him by the arm and said, “Please, can you tell this guy to f*¢%ing stand where I put him?”

They started talking and I’m now watching two guys to whom a conversation is not only verbal, but augmented by what can best be described as semaphore signals without flags.

Finally, much laughter, the friend comes over and says, “You must understand. Guido knows nothing of being photographed. He only knows that the essence of politeness is to stay close to the person you are with.”

Politeness doesn’t always pay off.

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