After watching BBC’s latest documentary programme, “Vivian Maier – Who took nanny’s pictures”, this week, I was so impressed, intrigued and inspired. Not only her style of photography but also her approach and techniques. Henri Cartier-Bresson is always my hero in black and white street photography but the recent discovery of Vivian Maier makes me think that she could be up there with HCB in my list!
I would love to study Vivian in detail but it has become one of the greatest retrospective investigation on a person ever in recent history, well obviously not for criminal offense. She has become an illusion, a mysterious person. Not only that she hadn’t had a family, she had no home. All she left behind now is a bunch of photos. Even though her photos seem pretty straight forward to interpret but just like any paintings, anyone can interpret it in a totally different way. They are there for you to imagine.
Her discovery was accidental and in my opinion, quite sad. Because she never ever showed any of her work to others, apart from a handful of her friends she made at different time, no one knew about her existence. In fact, she’s just a normal nanny for most of her working life. She’s not a celebrity. She dressed normal, she ate normal and she lived normal, well kind of. Most importantly, her passion showed in every one of her photos. However, in my opinion, it was her passion that eventually drove her to the end and created an afterlife fame. She kept taking photos until the end, even though the collection showed that her latest photos were in the 1980’s but as she’d been seen walking around, even before she was hospitalised after an accident and eventually passed away six months later, with her cameras. Her history almost secured my thinking that she would never leave her door without a ‘loaded’ camera. She might not have taken many but I am very certain that she would have pressed that shutter button a few times. No one knew though and they were all my guesses. All those undeveloped films would probably prove my theory. But because many of her belongings were auctioned off or got thrown away, it would remain a mystery until someone somehow rediscovers them.
What really fascinates me is the fact that she took all these photographs, 150,000 of them, for her personal enjoyment or a reflection of her vision and a record of her life. After an hour of watching the programme, I already fell in love of her. Her photographs, at least the ones I saw from the show, were very personal, meaningful and relaxed. The photographs show that she was an observer yet she was very much in the photos. They were personal, so much so that you can sense what she was thinking at the time.
As mentioned in the programme, because she wasn’t a professional photographer, one who got paid for his/her work, she did all that for herself. For any film photographer, espeically street photographers, her hit rate was surprisingly high. In her days, photo taking was an expensive affair so she would have chosen her subject or location very carefully and pressed that shutter button only when she thought it was worth remembering. Buying and developing negatives were costly, I guess that’s why she only took one roll a day. Twelve shots a day, that’s a roll of 120 film from her Rolleiflex TLR. Twelve shots!!!! Each roll would document her day from morning until the evening. This limitation really connected me. I recalled that when I first started photography in the 90’s, I was in university with no spare money. I saved up my lunch money to buy my first SLR. I couldn’t afford to shoot without worry like digital today and I had to wait until there’s a sales on negatives before I would buy some. Even then I would still compose carefully and made sure that’s the shot I wanted before I pressed the shutter button. But my hit rate would never be as high as Vivian. And I too, was self-taught.
I could never compare myself to Vivian. With all due respect, I was a more social and open person then she was. She was a loner, with unlimited personal time and freedom. After work, she would walk out and started her photographic journey of the day. I admitted that I wasn’t as dedicated as Vivian. I socialised at a pub with my colleagues, though with my camera. But I never photographed alone. I do now these days, perhaps my life is settled and I know what I want. Vivian definitely discovered what she wanted way earlier than I was. Talent aside, this what made her among the greats. Some people are born with desire and some people develop their desires.
Her street portraits were simply stunning. Somehow, she managed to photograph these strangers with intimacy. Amazed I am. Moreover, she really loved photographing in rough streets and perhaps these were places that connected to her life. From the photos I saw, I didn’t think she enjoyed glamour much. She never liked make-up, she never liked jewelry. She just loved being human, a man as a man, a woman as a woman. She didn’t believe a man should wear a suit and smoke cigar to make him a man nor a woman should wear make-up and bling bling jewelry to make her a woman. That’s why she enjoyed rougher streets where people were more ‘bare’. They only wore essentials which showed who they were. I also thought that black and white definitely helped. Not that she had a choice when she started photography in the 40’s but what I love monochrome is that when you simply appreciate the content in focus in the photographs and not be distracted by vivid colours.
I would study what I could with the books I have bought and online. Surely she is my new found subject. Sad that I couldn’t meet her in person but no doubt she will live in my photographic journey now.
There you go Vivian Maier is my new heroine in photography. I will probably review more about the books I just bought when I go through them.
Just keep an eye for the new documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, which is still in production!
Official Trailer here!
Please support my work by clicking any Amazon link and buy anything there, even nappies or any essentials. Thanks in advance for your help!
You will find Vivian Maier’s books that I just purchased below or just search in Amazon!