By Jay Maisel
Excerpt: It’s Not About the F-Stop

This picture was taken on my first assignment for a national magazine:

I want to set the scene: It was 1954 and I was 23 years old. Marilyn Monroe was at the zenith of her career. Sammy Davis Jr. had come back from having lost an eye and was dancing, singing, and acting his way across the color line and into America’s heart.

My assignment was a simple one: go to an after-party. The event was the premiere of East of Eden with James Dean. Cover the party; come back with pictures of people at the festivities. Make ’em look good, and kid…don’t f*¢% up.

When I got there, the first thing I was aware of was I was the only photographer there! The second thing was Sammy Davis Jr. playing the piano with Marilyn Monroe sitting next to him.

They were delighted with each other. He was trying to get her to sing with him, she was all little girlish in her refusal, both flirting obviously and happily with each other. And me? I was so excited, I was amazed I didn’t wet my pants.

There were no motors back then so it was shoot, wind, shoot, wind, and all the time I’m thinking, “Oh my God, this is the best.” I shot over 100 frames and the small, still voice (that overrides your lack of intelligence) said to me, “There aren’t 100 frames on that roll of film.”

Oh s#[†! I knew what that meant. I checked the take-up spool (for those of you under 40, that was the gizmo that took up the slack when you wound the film—you do remember film, don’t you?) and it wound freely. Of course that meant I was shooting with no film going through the camera. I was suicidal. I reloaded the camera, but by then Marilyn and Sammy were gone.

Oh, the picture of Marilyn. I took it earlier or later that night—I have no recollection of shooting it at all.

This picture is an example of what I have written about elsewhere in this book. You have two chances: (1) get it in the shooting, or (2) catch it in the editing.

Though I don’t remember shooting it, I found it in the edit. I had rejected it
because of the focus, but then decided I loved it.

I post an actual picture from the premier so I could compare his.