Finding Vivian Maier: What Can Photographers Learn from Her?
Last year, I wrote a blog article on Vivian Maier, whom many regard as one of the greatest street photographers of the 20th century. Had she been known, her name might have appeared in sentences alongside Garry Winogrand, Robert Franks, or Diane Arbus. My own take is that I am not sure if she was quite up at that standard – she was a superb photographer (of that there is no doubt) – but undoubtedly held back by her quiet, ultra-private lifestyle and approach to her art. I have been intrigued by her story and think we have a huge amount to learn from where she succeeded and where she ultimately failed.
A week ago, I watched the movie ‘Finding Vivian Maier’ and wholeheartedly agree with the sky-high 94% rating on rotten tomatoes. In my opinion, this is an absolute ‘must-see’ for photography enthusiasts looking to refine their art. A trailer is shown below but I urge you to download and watch the entire 84-minute film, which is available on iTunes and elsewhere. It digs deep in an effort to understand the woman, what made her tick, how she related to others and, of course, what her photography meant to her and might mean to others. Its easy to fixate upon technique and not think about the human depths that are the source of the creative impulses of creative people… and the personal habits that determine their social context and therefore the exposure of their work. These things are absolute gold dust for photographers looking to improve their work. Its the spring that gives life to what would otherwise be a dry, technical exercise.
Maier is unique in that she was a fantastic photographer who did not achieve any recognition whatsoever, let alone fame. However, based on what we now know, she may have had what it took to reach the top. Its important not to confuse posterity with lifetime success. Her work has been astonishingly successful since its discovery (more so than many famous photographers), but the art world didn’t know her from Adam then and largely has its doors closed now. We do not know what her aspirations or secret hopes might have been, but we can entertain the possibility that she would have liked for her work to be seen and recognised, even if she might have wished to remain in the shadows on a personal level.
Had Maloof not bought her negatives, while searching for historical photographs of Chicago, there is a very high chance her work would all have ended up in the trash and we would not know a thing about her! I find this rather tragic, but what it means is that only a stroke of luck saved her work, without which her decades of devotion would have amounted to nothing more than the scratching of her own itch. Considering how prolifically she shot, how she cared for her negatives, stored her film and approached her art, this was beyond important to her: it was her life. It appears to have defined her inner world as well as her connection to the world around her. Based on insights from the film (including her flirtation with getting prints made for possible commercial sale), I personally suspect she wanted her photographs to be seen. This is a gut feeling and one of the reasons why I find her story so sad: she did not connect her world with the world, which is something that may have assuaged the pressures that appear to have eaten away at her sanity somewhat. So what can we learn?
Where Did She Succeed?
1. She worked hard and shot a LOT: This is fairly self-explanatory, but she shot a lot more than I had previously realized, leaving nearly a quarter of a million negatives. That’s twenty thousand rolls of 120 roll film! This took time, money (and some of the other qualities listed below). Lesson: Get out there and shoot. By all means think, learn, ponder, take time to feel and absorb, but act. You cannot engineer photography from theoretical manoeuvres on your sofa. I can be a highly introverted thinker, so I sometimes need to remind myself to do more ‘doing’! I also suspect quite a few readers of this article will be able to relate to what I am talking about.
2. Photography was at the centre of her life: This was not a hobby, but her life. It is impossible to know, but it seems that she worked her life around her need to photograph. She took her Rolleiflex with her everywhere. She dragged the children under her care out onto the streets, because this not only wore out the kids (very important!), but allowed her to be out there, in her hunting ground, totally immersed in the business of making photographs. Lesson: This confluence of interests/activities is very important. How can you make your work, your daily activities and your photography blend together? What projects are under your nose?
3. She was Local: Sure, she went around the world and shot hundreds of rolls on her world tour, but almost all the shots we associate with Vivian Maier were shot close to where she lived and worked. Lesson: Make the most of where you are! Do not forego your doorstep for exotic locations. I have shot extensively in Afghanistan, because I have spent time living there. Other people have shot there too, but I had a different relationship with the place than anyone else. As a result, my images are uniquely mine. Shaun O’Boyle, who I interviewed recently, shoots within a modest radius of his home, despite the lure of destinations further afield. You know where you live and your community better than anyone else, most likely. If not, make it your business to change that! When living in London I got to know my area well and although I did not stay long, I will return soon. I am armed with a long list of project ideas I am really excited to get moving with and all are local to London.
4. She embraced her Inner Self: The film suggests that she was at least eccentric and very possibly suffering from psychological problems. This is a difficult topic and we will likely never know how healthy or unhealthy she was, but what I feel confident of is that she was not living a lie. She was not living someone else’s life. It may not have been grand or impressive, but she seems to have been doing precisely what she wanted to do and photography was at its core. She indulged her desires (not necessarily in an entirely healthy way). Lesson: be honest with yourself about what you want to do. Indulge your instincts and enjoy them. Don’t worry what other people think too much and just revel in the energy that comes from giving an outlet to your inner source. Non-creative people won’t understand, but that does not matter, because its not a world you can share with such people at any level of depth; however, there will be those who do wholly understand.
5. She was intellectual: She read a lot. She was knowledgeable about current affairs and, although not explicitly stated, I suspect she knew a lot about the important photographers of the time. Lesson: Read all you can about things that interest you. Any area of knowledge or expertise will yield photographic ideas and opportunities. If you’re interested in the world, the world will hold your interest. The best ideas have nothing to do with photography IMHO. Photography is just the act of exploration and communication.
6. She followed her own path. She was Original: She did not mimic Winogrand any more than Frank. Her style is evidently her own. It’s a style that clearly belongs in the era she was shooting in, but which is distinct from others. She surely absorbed inspiration, but because she was true to her own vision, because she knew about photography, photographers, contemporary culture and politics, she was able to be both original and faithful to her own vision. Lesson: This takes courage. It also takes knowledge, skill, honesty and self-belief. She will have known she was good and spent her time trying to be better. She did not confirm to trends in her photography any more than in the clothes she wore. It means accepting criticism, rejection and even ridicule in the pursuit of what you feel you need to do.
7. She Kept things Simple: She knew her equipment and just got on with the business of making photographs.
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