Drill bits, circuit boards, shoe trees, bolts and cigar-making molds: to anyone else it’s junk. To 88-year-old photographer Jay Maisel, it’s a visual feast.
“I’m fascinated with industrial things,” says Mr. Maisel, who also collects monkey wrenches, wire models, porcelain masks and metal fragments. “If you really want to collect things, you can convince yourself that everything is necessary.”
Four years ago, when Mr. Maisel downsized from his six-story home on New York City’s Bowery to a 10,000-square-foot townhouse in Brooklyn, he wondered, “Where the hell am I going to put everything?” The former Germania Bank building at 190 Bowery that he left behind measured more than 35,000 square feet. It had a graffiti-scarred façade, a makeshift kitchen and a temperamental, hand-operated elevator. Mr. Maisel bought the 1898 Renaissance Revival building for $102,000 in 1966 and sold it to a developer for $55 million in 2015.
Mr. Maisel bought the former Germania Bank building, at 190 Bowery in New York, in 1965.
A new documentary, “Jay Myself,” chronicles Mr. Maisel’s final months in the Bowery. It follows Mr. Maisel, his wife and a team of assistants and movers as they pack up about 30 truckloads of scavenged ephemera and decide which objects to take to the house in Brooklyn, which to put in storage and which to throw out. The movie, which premieres in New York this week, was directed by Stephen Wilkes, a photographer who became Mr. Maisel’s protégé after meeting him in 1978.
Mr. Maisel, who photographed Miles Davis for the cover of his 1959 jazz album “Kind of Blue,” spent much of his career traveling the world shooting advertisements, images of everyday life and covers for magazines including “Sports Illustrated.” He originally wanted to become a painter but says that the artist Josef Albers, who taught him at Yale University, convinced him to turn to photography.
The beauty, shapes and history of the objects in his collection reflect his aesthetic. “Objects are there only if you really see them,” Mr. Maisel says in the documentary. “And art is trying to make others see what you see.”
A look inside 190 Bowery, from Stephen Wilkes’s JAY MYSELF.
Mr. Maisel isn’t familiar with Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizing phenomenon who helps people shed items. “I’m for clutter,” he says. He likes to photograph his things and mourns long-gone collections of comic books and autographed baseballs he put together as a boy in Brooklyn.
Over almost five decades, Mr. Maisel filled the former bank’s 72 rooms with abacuses, mismatched table legs and a pair of wood supports for a huppah. He says he can’t resist what others would toss out. “Basically, I want minimalism and I end up Salvation Army,” he says.
He and his wife, Linda Adam, were married at the house in 1989, standing on top of a file cabinet in front of 500 guests. They raised their daughter, Amanda, in the Bowery and Mr. Maisel remembers a junkie on the front steps helping right her stroller once when it tipped over. It was a gritty contrast to where he and his wife live now in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill.
Ms. Adam says she didn’t blink—and even helped—as her husband gradually filled the bank’s rooms. “It just becomes a way of living,” she says. “You see things in the city and you end up bringing them home. So, we kind of facilitated his passion for collecting things.”
“I do give him hell for it and I have to kind of roll my eyes,” she adds.
Culling the six floors of the former bank was painful, especially with a film crew underfoot. “I needed time to think,” Mr. Maisel said. Each of his objects has a story. The two African xylophones? “One I bought, one I traded for about 50 prints,” he says. The dozens of long-fingered mannequin hands? “I used to work in a factory that made rubber gloves. And those were the hands they used to form the gloves on. So about 40 years later, when I found them at a flea market, there was no choice. I had to have them.”
‘Don’t Walk, Red’ (1981) by Jay Maisel.
Mr. Maisel expected the objects he put in storage in New Jersey to stay there, but earlier this year a 4,200-square-foot commercial space two doors down from his new home became available and he pounced.
Mr. Wilkes, the filmmaker, noticed a spring in Mr. Maisel’s step once he started reuniting with his things. “He’s putting all his toys together, like a creative amoeba,” Mr. Wilkes says, adding that Mr. Maisel is making “a visual museum of things he finds beauty in.”
Jay Maisel, left, and Stephen Wilkes in 2019.
The new space in Brooklyn is filling up. Mr. Maisel’s bottle collection is back and so is his Japanese calligraphy poster announcing a sumo-wrestling match. His welding tips, the silver Cunard Lines pitcher, a yellow shuttlecock and a pair of horror-movie eyeballs have also made a return.
For the first time in decades, Mr. Maisel isn’t seeking out new things and hauling them home. “When you don’t have room to show what you have, it’s a little crazy to buy a lot more,” he says. “However, if I saw something I really loved—then, maybe.”
Write to Brenda Cronin at email@example.com
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