On the evening of Friday, Feb. 15, an exhibition of documentarian Albert Maysles’ photographs and cinemagraphs opened at the Steven Kasher Gallery in Chelsea. The event coincided with the release of a new book, A Maysles Scrapbook, which features a preface by Martin Scorsese, who praises the iconic, collaborative efforts of Mr. Maysles and his late brother and soundman, David Maysles. The evening’s celebrated auteur, a sharp 81-year-old, is widely known for creating films like Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter and Salesman.
Speaking in lean paragraphs, the bespectacled Mr. Maysles, whose crooked, wily gray hairs belied a focused demeanor, avoided looking directly at his work. Instead, he peered intently into the faces of his friends and fans.
“I suppose the greatest thing is the pleasure you have in making the film and having the confidence that the people in the film have been served justly,” he told The Daily Transom when we caught up with him. He recalled a scene in Salesman, his 1969 documentary about four salesmen traveling across New England and Florida selling Bibles door-to-door in impoverished neighborhoods, when one of the subjects, Paul Brennan, “is in a cafeteria and just looking off,” he recalled wistfully. “It’s totally silent, there’s nothing happening, but there’s a connection with him. And that’s a tearjerker.”
He said that the U.S. would not have entered the Iraq war had there been “a simple, direct knowledge through a documentary of an Iraqi family. Close to a million [Iraqis] have been killed now, and that wouldn’t have happened if we knew even just one family,” he said.
As Mr. Maysles approaches the twilight of his career, he has observed a bright future for budding documentarians. “I see the progress in terms of getting closer and closer to what documentary really is at its strongest, which is to film events, to film scenes,” he said, before mentioning the visceral import of filming something as it happens, rather than talking about it in its aftermath.
Mr. Maysles recalled meeting artist Edward Steichen after returning from Moscow, where he had seen the Family of Man photography exhibition, which was curated by the latter man.
‘“Remember how you saw all those people lined up to see those photographs?”’ he remembered the late Steichen asking him. ‘“There were more of those people there than people looking at the refrigerators and automobiles … because when they saw those people, they identified with them.’
“For that moment, they were that person,” he mused. “And that’s magic.”