Do you remember the I Spy books? They were filled with photographs of cluttered scenes with hidden treasures that the “reader” was instructed to find. My younger daughter loved those books, and we would spend hours searching for the hidden horse or shoes or ballerina.
When I watched the documentary Jay Myself this past weekend, I felt as though I had been thrust into a living re-creation of I Spy in the form of prominent photographer Jay Maisel’s 36,000-square-foot home. In the film, he was packing up the treasures he had collected over the past 40+ years to move to smaller quarters.
Jay is a brilliant and talented photographer, but for me, the film was a philosophical exploration of how limited most of us are in the way that we view the world. We are so focused on where we are heading that we forget to notice the details along the way.
In contrast, everything is fascinating to Jay—shapes, colors, light. He tries to see things the way a child would see them—fresh and new with no script or presumption. That is in stark contrast to the way most adults see the world—layered and burdened by years of “education,” which, while opening doors in some ways, stifles our vision in others.
Jay’s home was filled with tons (literally!) of stuff that he had collected to photograph over the years. Shapes…textures…rocks…“circles”…mannequin hands that were saved for decades until they made permanent indentations on pieces of foam that he could then photograph ,to show the passage of time. On every surface and in every one of thousands of drawers was the possibility of a photograph that would reflect the light and composition at that moment in time.
Jay reminded me very much of my father who similarly surrounded himself with objets d’art—collecting his own fascinating objects that told him stories or challenged his mind. Many of Dad’s treasures were photographs that taught him life lessons. But among his art collection, he also had items that included a human brain and a replica of a biplane, which hung from the ceiling of his office, both of which reminded him of the grand possibilities of humanity.
Like all art, every experience of each shape and color and moment of light is different for each person.
In the documentary, Jay talks about how color is different for each person and in each moment because the light is constantly changing…and how it shines differently for each person looking at an object, since the angles vary. Shades of color vary depending on if the light source is a yellow incandescent lightbulb or a bluish fluorescent light or a high-noon sun or an orange-hued sunset. Bright red, for example, turns burgundy when in the shadow. Next time you are out on an early-spring day, pay attention to the many, many shades of green.
Never was the word “mindfulness” uttered in the film. Jay is not what you would think of as a mindfulness coach, but the way that he focuses on the subtleties and possibilities of even the most mundane is mindfulness in action. He makes a comment in the film that objects are there only if you really see them. He sees them all, forever focused on the snapshot of the moment rather than worrying about what may be coming next.
Midway through the film, Jay ponders with the film’s director, Stephen Wilkes, himself a photographer and protégé of Jay’s, the question—Do you like photographing or photos?
What a huge metaphor for life! Jay was talking about those who love the process of creating versus those who love the product of those creations. My husband, Ron, also a photographer, loves the process of creating. I like the creations. When we were first married, we would watch Bob Ross’s “art for shut-ins” TV show, entranced by his gentle voice and the way a blank canvas turned into a whole world of beauty, including his “happy little trees.” Ron would comment on his fascination with Ross’s process of creating each painting—“this is art”—not the finished piece. I never understood it as clearly as I did when watching this film. There are those like me who like the photographs—the tangible memory of the moment and the “useful” item that the creation becomes. There are those who love the search and the creation. Thank goodness we both exist. The world needs both types—neither right and neither wrong,
Seeing the world through the eyes of others is a critical part of life…whether through the eyes of a spouse, friend, coworker or whoever. It may be creator versus collector…or an infinite number of perspectives and styles different from our own. The variety helps us all to exist and to coexist. We cannot exist with only our own type.
When I have talked to my children about choosing life partners, I explained that it is important to find complements…not mirror images. We have ourselves, so we don’t need a clone. What we need are skills and perspectives and wisdom that complements us. With the divisiveness and side-taking rampant in the country today, it is vital that we come back to understanding the value of variety for the survival of all of us.
It is too easy to be stuck in our paths and perspectives. It may be safer there, but as Jay Meisel makes eminently clear, there are soooooo many other ways to see the world than our own. It’s not hard and doesn’t take time to see the details. You just have to change your perspective.