Vivian Maier, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Photography
Written by Katt Janson Merilo
I can barely wait a week to see my developed film. Most photographers nowadays don’t even wait a minute. More and more I find myself wanting to see my work faster, oftentimes letting the quality and archivability of my art suffer so I can get gratification as fast as possible. I’ve become so obsessed with producing and perfecting the final image that my love of making a photograph has all but faded, and I believe this change in attitude is in fact detrimental to the tone and sincerity of my work. It’s been far too long since I’ve let my camera take me anywhere, since I let the picture-making become its own event.
The existential realization of this new change that has not necessarily been for the better came from an unexpected source. While living in Chicago during a year of career exploration and self-discovery, I was lucky enough to attend Vivian Maier’s first American show at the Chicago Cultural Center. Like many other people before and since, I was immediately inspired by the story of Maier’s life and the somewhat tragic, entirely serendipitous discovery of her work. There’s a lot to her story, most of which is inspiring. The thought that such a brilliant eye almost went completely undiscovered fascinates me. Unfortunately Maier’s life took a sad turn when she was unable to keep up with her storage unit’s payments, and the contents were sold at auction. Fortunately for us all, the buyers who discovered her negatives started showing her work to the world. When I walked into the Cultural Center that night, I became further inspired by her photography, as were the original witnesses of her emerging work on Flickr.
But perhaps the most inspiring part of that entire show for me was one very small, very curious detail. In the display cases containing her cameras, odd hats, and other personal effects found in the storage unit that contained her treasure trove of negatives were several rolls of undeveloped film. The note accompanying the rolls of film explained that of the 116,000 or more negatives known to exist in Vivian Maier’s various collections, many of them were never even developed in her lifetime. As a nanny, Maier often did not make enough money to have her negatives processed, but that never stopped her from producing them.
This one small detail blew my mind. It’s been two years since that show and I still dwell on the thought of going most of my life without ever really seeing a large portion of my work. I couldn’t imagine why Maier would continue photographing without the promise of seeing the fruits of her labor. It made me sad to think about her dying without having seen her powerful images, but then I realized that maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe it was the act of photography, the moment of exposure, the connection between herself, her subject, and her camera that mattered to her. And maybe that was one of her many secrets. She set out everyday, exposing on average twelve frames a day, for perhaps no reason other than she loved to do it. Maybe the labor itself was enough.
Somewhere along the way, I think I lost my love for the labor of photography. I’ve become so bogged down with thoughts of post process, alternative process, likes and faves and reblogs that my cluttered mind had little focus left to give to my environment or my camera. I’ve almost lost interest in environmental details that once interested me. As a photography lab technician, I spend my days looking at great photography. Because of this I’ve walked away from many photographic opportunities with the thought that I’d seen that picture before, possibly captured better than was within my capabilities. Most photographs, in my mind, now aren’t worth even an attempt, not one thirtieth of a second. And in looking at my work, it shows.
My coworker Zeb has a curious phrase that felt strange the first time I heard it, but makes more sense the more I think about it. Instead of “taking” pictures, he speaks of “making” them. A seemingly small change in syntax, the choice to “make” rather than “take” is one that intrigues me. What I see when I look at Maier’s work is someone who loved the experience of making pictures. With an undeniable understanding of the principles of photography under her belt, she left her home and places of employment to step boldly wherever her camera happened to take her. Sometimes it was just a walk down the street, sometimes it was Europe. Once it was the 1968 Democratic National Convention. There was no phantom audience, critic, or gallery curator to impress; she was into photography for photography’s sake. How many of us now can really say the same? Would you still do photography if you couldn’t see the results?
Maier’s story made me wonder who she was photographing for, until I finally turned my question on itself and asked: who am I photographing for? Recently it hasn’t been for me, not really. It’s been to hopefully please someone else, be it critic, friend, or general public. At some point I stopped making pictures for the joy of it, and the moment my own enjoyment stopped, my inspiration did, as well.
What I see now when I look at Maier’s work is someone who never stopped enjoying photography: a dedicated and enthusiastic capturer of moments and seducer of light. Hers is the work of someone in love with the click of the shutter, with the peak of a smile, with the thrill of eye contact made with an unknowing party through a waist-level viewfinder. Perhaps to her, the camera she held was an icebreaker between herself and her environment, a new way to view the world and capture it for a present moment. The permanent images might have only been a secondary bonus, and as a result her sincere empathy and engagement in the moment were captured as clearly as the people on her film. In my mind, Maier is the embodiment of that virginal moment when it’s just you, your light-safe box, and an open world full of possibilities.
Unfortunately, all this conjecture and discovery emerges without the ability to talk to the artist about her work. In 2009, the owner of 90% of Maier’s known body of work, John Maloof, found Vivan Maier’s name written on a lab envelope and Googled her. His search turned up an obituary published by the Chicago Tribune just days before. There are many of us now, myself included, who yearn to hear the artist speak about her work, to answer all the questions we’ve formed since seeing her images materialize from out of the shadows. There is intrigue, however, in the mystery. And I, for one, will always get a thrill and sense of gratitude in looking through the modern collections of her enticing images with the knowledge that regardless of whose eyes her pictures were meant for, they most certainly were not intended for mine.
If you haven’t seen Vivian Maier’s work in person, now’s the time. The show Vivian Maier Out of the Shadows from the Goldstein collection opened earlier this winter at Powell’s Books on Burnside, and is now at Blue Sky Gallery until March 3, 2013. I don’t know if her work will inspire you as much as it has myself, or Maloof, or all of the others I’ve spoken about it with, but I don’t think anyone can afford to miss the opportunity to find out.
Further Reading about Vivian Maier and her work:
The original Flickr discussion about Maier’s photography, posted by John Maloof: http://www.flickr.com/groups/onthestreet/discuss/72157622552378986/
The Official website of the John Maloof Collection: http://www.vivianmaier.com/
Vivian Maier – Her Discovered Work; Maloof’s first website promoting Maier’s photography: http://vivianmaier.blogspot.com/
Vivian Maier Street Photographer, ed. by John Maloof. powerHouse Books, 2011.
Vivian Maier Out of the Shadows, by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams. CityFiles Press, 2012.