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Albert Maysles, Pioneering Documentary Maker, Dies at 88

By Tom White

Filmmaker Albert Maysles. Courtesy of Maysles Films

Albert Maysles, who, with his cohorts at Drew Associates pioneered the cinema vérité style in the early 1960s that would make a lasting impact on the art and craft of documentary making, died Thursday, March 5. He was 88.

Together with Robert Drew, Richard Leacock and DA Pennebaker, Maysles helped to liberate documentary cinema—and the documentary practice. Their 1960 film Primary brought you up close and personal with then-candidate John F. Kennedy as he campaigned across Wisconsin in his bid to win that state’s primary. The lighter weight cameras and synch sound, which Leacock and Pennebaker were instrumental in developing, enabled the filmmakers to capture behind-the-scenes moments—the twitchy fingers of a nervous Jackie Kennedy, a quietly contemplative JFK in his hotel room—and follow Kennedy as he strides from backstage to center stage, from private person to public persona.

Maysles and his brother David would later break from Drew Associates and blaze their own trail with such landmarks as Salesman, Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens and the series of films they made with the landscape artist Christo. That Albert initially trained as a psychologist served his artistic career well, for he exuded an abiding curiosity and a copious empathy about how human beings work and live and love. He was an eminently patient cinematographer, one with a feel for poetry, for humor and for heartache.

He was equally generous as a mentor. Scores of documentarians—Barbara Kopple, Joe Berlinger, Andrew Jarecki among many others—can readily attest to the lasting impact that his teaching had on their work. Over the last decade or so, Maysles devoted as much energy to his Maysles Institute and Maysles Cinema, both located in Harlem. The nonprofit Institute, according to its website, "is dedicated to the exhibition and production of documentary films that inspire dialogue and action." The Maysles Cinema has programmed a steady stream of screenings and discussions, and has forged partnerships with such local organizations as the National Black Programming Consortium, the New Museum and the Harlem Historic Parks Association.

Maysles’ final film, In Transit, a labor of love for many years, will finally receive its premiere, at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. The film documents life on a train traveling from Chicago to Seattle.

Maysles earned numerous honors throughout his career, including the IDA Career Achievement Award, in 1994, and, 20 years later, the DOC NYC Lifetime Achievement Award.


Further reading on Albert Maysles' life and career:

Return to Grey Gardens: Criterion Collection Releases New Blu-Ray Edition

Documentarians at The Gates: Maysles Does Christo--Once Again

Gimme Shekels: Wanna Piece of Al Maysles' Next Film?

The Death of Objectivity? When Documentary Footage Becomes Evidence

Albert Maysles and Others Remember Charlotte Zwerin

How Close Is Too Close? A Consideration of the Filmmaker-Subject Relationship

Vérité Vamping: Grey Gardens Blooms Onstage

Playback: Drew and Associates' Primary

The Grey Gardens Phenomenon: Life Begets Art and More Art