Episode 013: Light, Gesture and Color – a brief introduction to Jay Maisel

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In this episode of CREATE. PHOTOGRAPHY, Daniel Sigg will give a brief introduction to the stunning photography of American photographer Jay Maisel. Jay had a long career as commercial photographer, and photographed the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Miles Davis. But he really got well know for his use of light, gesture and color in everyday scenes. Daniel will also review 3 of Jay’s images.

Light, Color, Gesture – a brief introduction to Jay Maisel

Some quotes by Jay Maisel

What’s photography really all about? (from his book Light, Gesture and Color)

Jay Maisel: A quote from Sam Garcia, “Photography is about everything but photography.

Who were the most important photographers? (from an interview with John Paul Caponigro https://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/photographers/q-and-a/jay-maisel/)

Jay Maisel: I think classification and judging are ridiculous.

What is your most marked characteristic?

Jay Maisel: Loud, vulgar and thoughtful.

The whole world now shoots everyday street scenes, why are yours more magical than theirs? (interview with David Dye)

Jay Maisel: I throw away the bad ones.

Brief Bio

Born in 1931 in Brooklyn NY

He studied painting and graphic design at Cooper Union and Yale

Began career in photography in 1954

Portfolio includes the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Miles Davis including the album cover for Kind of Blue


But he is perhaps best known for capturing the light, color, and gesture found in everyday life.

He worked as a commercial photographer through the 90s and then focused more on his personal photography, as well as becoming a teacher to others.

Interesting Facts

From 2018 Written Interview with Jay Maisel (by David Dye): https://davedye.com/2018/06/18/interview-jay-maisel/

Pete Turner, Ernst Haas, and I opened a gallery in Carnegie Hall on 57th St. to show color.

For today’s brief introduction, I want to follow three aspects of Jay’s work that also are reflected in his book with the same name: Light, Gesture and Color


There is no bad light.

Jay talks about photographers who say “I won’t shoot in the middle of the day” “I only shoot at the golden time” provides many stunning examples where the opposite is true.


Jay is being asked this a lot. And it is difficult to explain. But he thinks the best is probably essence …. characteristic is good,

In Jay’s words it “reveals the essence of each thing we look at …. he also calls it the “it-ness” of anything we shoot.

It is about, in Jay’s word to “see and show others not just the superficial, bu t the details, the meanings, and the implications of all that you look at: the wetness, the reflectivity, and power of water; the subtlety of clouds; the texture of the bark of the tree; the delightful surface of a finished piece of wood: the smoothness of a baby; the rough ragged face of the aged: or the aerial perspective of diminishing clarity in a series of mountains.

It’s obvious that its not just people who have gesture. It’s in everything we look at: chairs, tables, houses, cars. If we look … it’s there.” (end quote)

In an interview with David Dye in 2018 he was asked:

“Gesture trumps graphics”. What do you mean?

Jay Maisel: As the years have gone on I’m less interested in the form of pictures than I am in the content of pictures.

I’m less in interested in visual patterns than I am in the behaviour going on in the picture.

However, I still think that you can ruin a picture by not being aware of what’s in it


I quoted Jay about color theory in my previous episode several times. And not necessarily to say that color theory is so important, but it is clear that Jay understands color theory including additive and subtractive color. In an interview he also talks about how he gets “emotional” when the color of a monitor for example is not correct.

Jay says that one color means nothing. Only when color relate to each other, things become interesting. He talks about how the impressionists used additive color in an exceptional way, for example, the put a blue next to a yellow and the observer would see pure green.

He states that we as photographers have to be aware of subtractive color. He explains how by one can change a neutral grey by putting it next to a cool green (then the grey will look warmer), or to a warm red (in that case the grey will look cooler).

In the end, Jay states Color just “is”. Stay open to it, he says. Don’t plan for it, don’t look for a particular color. Just stay open, be loose and color will come to us.

Image Review: links to images

Image 1: Main Trees https://www.jaymaisel.com/products/maine-trees

Image 2: https://davedye.com/2018/06/18/interview-jay-maisel/orange-walllatejay-maisel/

Image 3: https://davedye.com/2018/06/18/interview-jay-maisel/#jp-carousel-37489  coalminers 

Summary and more resources

To sum up, I find Jay’s work very inspirational.

The best thing to do and to understand the light, color and gesture Jay is talking about is to review his work. If you are not familiar with him, a good start is to just do a google images search on Jay Maisel.

I highly recommend his book Light Color and Gesture and also It’s not about the F-stop. I am sure his other books are great, too, but those are the ones I own currently.

Written interview with Jay Maisel (by John Paul Caponigro) https://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/photographers/q-and-a/jay-maisel/

Written Interview with Jay Maisel (by David Dye): https://davedye.com/2018/06/18/interview-jay-maisel/

Interview with Jay about color  https://blog.xritephoto.com/2015/10/colortalk-xrite-coloratti-jay-maisel/#sthash.jhKVee9k.gOXge0WU.dpbs

Jay Maisel talking about being open     https://vimeo.com/116692462

Jay Maisel talking about gesture   https://vimeo.com/116718991

A short documentary about Jay  https://videopress.com/v/bD1VNFNG

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