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‘Jay Myself’ Review: A Photographer Parts With His SoHo Paradise


The career of the 88-year-old American photographer Jay Maisel has been blessed both by his individual talent, which is vast, and by some very good fortune. That latter component manifested itself most generously in the early 1960s, when Maisel bought a six-story, 36,000-square-foot former bank building in Manhattan’s SoHo, on the corner of Bowery and Spring.

As he recalls in “Jay Myself,” an energetic documentary directed by Stephen Wilkes (his former intern), he could not afford the building at the time. The $25,000 down payment was forbidding. But a magazine assignment fee turned out to be a per-page deal, not a flat rate, and the pages were many. Voilà, a down payment.

The space enabled Maisel to become a hoarder, albeit a hoarder of genius. Several overhead shots in the movie show a floor covered by transparencies of his work; the views are reminiscent of the final shots of “Citizen Kane” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Maisel also invented gizmos, collected objects of various attractive colors (there’s concern expressed in the movie over the ultimate fate of a group of blue bottles), and more. The structure was also where he lived, had a small family, and relaxed. One floor housed a basketball half-court. At its far end was a gallery of Maisel’s work, which covers as much under the sun as a single photographer can capture in a lifetime.

The making of the film was occasioned by Maisel’s sale of the place a couple of years ago. He unloaded it for $55 million. The downside was that he and his wife and adult daughter had to vacate. And Maisel had to part with much of his idiosyncratic stuff.

It’s a fun journey. The process is fascinating and looks exhausting. (Just as the 2017 documentary “Thy Father’s Chair” functioned as an endorsement of the service Home Clean Home, this one shows Moishe’s Self Storage doing a bang-up job.) As Wilkes depicts one chapter of the master’s life ending, he threads a narrative of the past, including Maisel’s studies with the artist Josef Albers, whose color theory had a strong influence on Maisel’s work.

As much as Maisel’s eclectic subject matter, ranging from poverty-stricken back alleys in South America to Sports Illustrated swimsuit- models, shows a bracing engagement with the real world, the photographer’s home base functioned as a bubble. “He’s completely oblivious to all the things in the world that are relevant and important,” his daughter, Amanda, notes, matter-of-factly but with a smile.

Jay Myself

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 19 minutes.


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