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Self Portrait of Vivian Maier

I love photography.

I am a photographer.

These statements are not new revelations for me. As cliche and overused as it sounds, I’ve always loved photography. Always been interested, always been intrigued. I wasn’t so much a fan of high school, and probably would have graduated early if not for the sole fact that at my high school photography was only offered to seniors (who had paid their dues in the art department), spring semester, last period of the day. I remember internally scoffing at my friend Rachel, who had been in art classes with me for three and a half years, for her decision to take minimum day the last semester instead of photography. Choosing to not take photography, the thing I had literally been waiting for my entire high school career, was mind boggling to me.

So while the other seniors on minimum day happily left early that last semester, I happily sat in the art room, learning about shutter speeds, apertures, depth of field, developing film, and printing in the darkroom. My first experiences with ‘real’ photography.

And I loved it.

It reaffirmed the statement I made when I was 15 years old that I was going to be a photographer; only this time it seemed more real and with purpose since I was going off to college in the fall. I was going off to college to major in photography.

Well…

My ten year high school reunion is occurring later this year. I started to, but did not end up finishing college with a photography degree. In fact, I only took one photography class in college, and it was even more basic than my high school class. I transferred schools (3 times in 3 years), changed majors (all within the art department), got somewhat burned out on being forced to be creative in all my studio art classes, decided to take a break, and in the processing of putting my paints and pencils away, I also put away my camera (except for the occasional vacation).

Years went by. I was still ‘interested’ in photography, but was not shooting. Was not learning. I changed schools again, changed careers, got engaged, got married, bought a house, and got a cat. Sometime after the cat, I began to feel the itch again. I wanted to shoot; wanted to photograph. I still had my SLR camera I bought before my high school class, but really had my eye on the new DSLRs that were finally becoming affordable to the masses. So I begged and pleaded and researched and saved and finally bought one.

And once again, I was in love with photography. Plus, this time things were easier because I could actually see what I was doing right away. Ahh, the beauty of digital. Instant gratification! I began to shoot more and more. Pictures of the house, pictures of the cat, pictures on vacation. Only I discovered that instead of having shoe boxes of negatives and prints like I did during my film days, I had files and files on my computer. And I needed to edit them, because that’s what you did with digital pictures. So I bought Photoshop and tried to recall the knowledge I’d learned in my graphic design classes many years earlier. With editing there were so many options. So many things to do and try. Yay! I wanted to learn and try all of them; because I could, and it was fun. I found photography message boards and forums and awed over the work of the ‘professionals’ and secretly wished I was among their ranks.

Then my friend got pregnant and had a baby. I took newborn pictures, and that was fun. The baby continued to grow and I took more pictures. Another friend got pregnant and I took her baby’s pictures. They loved them; I loved taking them and I first started to think ‘hey, maybe I could do this.’ I was still learning and trying to refine my style, while still reading the photography forums and stalking other photographer’s blogs. I felt inadequate in my skills, gear and knowledge, and didn’t want to peruse anything official until I felt comfortable with myself.

Therefore I continued to read and learn, and I slowly began to upgrade. I got a new camera body and a used lens (note: I got the best I could afford outright. I don’t believe in the whole going into debt thing.), and a fancy new laptop made by a company in California. I upgrade editing software and got a calibrator. I was shooting for more friends, and even a couple non-friends that had been referred to me. I was simplifying my shooting and editing processes, and getting the feel for what running a business is like. Fall comes and I’m actually pretty busy. It’s fun, but a little difficult to handle with a regular full time job. There is a lot of editing and emailing and Christmas card designing and ordering. Oh, did I mention a lot of editing?

Very quickly, my ‘photography’ and me being a photographer had morphed from shooting into hours sitting behind the computer. I’d read it a hundred times on the forums, that a photography business is about 10% shooting, and 90% other stuff. While I didn’t mind the other stuff, I missed the shooting. The hands-on process. I still shot for myself, but still, those pictures had to be edited, which meant hours behind the computer. And just to expand, I strive for very clean and classic processing. I don’t do crazy effects or over-saturated colors or textures or lots of retouching. My dream is to get it correct in camera, but even if I do I still have to upload, convert and resize images, which takes time at the laptop. Eventually I got so fed up with the process and felt so far behind that I stopped shooting for awhile.

Why?

I missed the tactile feeling I used to have with photography. Where it was a slow and methodical process; almost a mysterious challenge. Digital photography is wonderful, but it can have the tendency to make you lazy. I know for myself it’s easy to overshoot (since you have unlimited exposures), and maybe not worry so much about settings because you know you’ll be tweaking things during post-processing anyway. It made me sad and frustrated. Here I was, a ‘photographer,’ not shooting and getting indifferent about my craft. I was too involved, too interested, and too obsessed to just be a hobbyist. I knew I wanted and needed to do something and challenge myself, but wasn’t sure quite what.

And then I came across the story of Vivian Maier.

You can read full articles about her here, here and the official blog here, but I’ll give the quick run down of the story. Vivian Maier was born in 1926 and moved to New York from France when she was a child. She later worked as a nanny in Chicago, where she took thousands and thousands of photographs with her Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex camera during the 1950s and 1960s. Her work would be classified as street photography and depicts everyday people and everyday life in downtown Chicago. She shot well over 40,000 images, but never showed them to anyone. Also, for whatever reason, she kept 1,000 rolls of film she shot undeveloped. Nobody knew her name, her work, or her story until 2008 when a man named John Maloof bought a box of unknown, unlabeled negatives and undeveloped film at an auction house in Chicago. There were being liquidated from a storage unit for reason of delinquent payments. Maloof was working on a book about Chicago and hoped to be able to find a couple usable images of a particular Chicago neighborhood.

He didn’t find the pictures he was looking for, but instead found an entire body of work by a gifted artist nobody had ever heard about. Her images are authentic and artistic, and show glimpses of everyday city life.

Although I love pretty much all of her work that I’ve seen, these next images are some of my favorites.

Sigh. Am I the only person who really, really wishes business men still wore hats?

This one is quite possibly my favorite. The old fashioned steering wheel,  the pocket watch chain, the hat lazily resting on the gear shift. The formality of his three-piece pinstripe suit mixed with the complete casualness of napping in a car. I’m not sure why, but I love it. A lot.

The story and photography of Vivian Maier affected and inspired me in many ways. First of all, the whole dynamic of the story itself fascinates me. The idea of finding and discovering something that was previously undiscovered and unknown is a secret (well not so secret now) dream of mine. When we first moved into our 1920’s house I fantasized about find that mysterious trunk in the attic filled with treasures and keepsakes of the original owners. Unfortunately we didn’t have that kind of luck. Instead we found a bunch of rusty plumbing we had to replace, but that’s a different story.

The second reason I love Vivian Maier (and yes, I do feel like I’m writing a high school five paragraph essay) is that I find her work beautiful. It’s interesting yet incredibly simple and almost unassuming. Rather than glancing at random images of people living in a city, I stop to wonder who those people are, what were they doing that day, what was their life like? I love the classic and timeless qualities of her photographs. Yes, the clothing may look dated (still hoping those hats come back in style), but the situations and people and environments are the same. Vivian’s work makes me pause and study it and think. Not all photography does. In all honesty, with as much photography as I look at on a daily basis, very little does.

My last fascination with the story of Vivian Maier is the whole mystery behind it all. Why didn’t she show and display her work? Why did she keep it and herself hidden? She obviously loved photography; I don’t know many people who shoot and hold onto over 40,000 images who don’t. What were her motives and vision for her art? Was she content being unknown and just shooting for herself? All of these questions will remain unanswered, as sadly Vivian died in April 2009, before John Maloof had a chance to meet her. The main thing I can’t wrap my brain around is why she shot so many rolls of film, literally hundreds and hundreds of rolls and never even bothered to get them developed. To see if her exposures and her compositions turned out. To see if the focus was sharp or the light what she wanted. I easily can get so fixed on the end result of my photography, and to have that reflex while shooting to instantly look at the back of the camera. To be validated that yes, I am at the correct exposure, yes, the light is good, or no, this isn’t working, try something else. All these things are a part of photography in the digital age, and are not bad things. But Vivian didn’t have the luxury to instantly see her images on the back of her camera. She even took it a step further and never even bothered to develop them sometimes. Some have said it might have been a financial decision; that she couldn’t afford to get her film developed. Maybe that was partially the case, but in that situation I think many would just stop buying new rolls. They would save and get the exposed film developed before starting on a new one. Or at least that’s probably what I would have done. But she didn’t. She shot and shot and then shot some more, hundreds of times over. That mindset and practice, as bizarre as it may seem, had a lot more substance and gumption than my current methodology and way of thinking.

Vivian Maier inspired and taught me that the end result of photography isn’t necessarily the most important. Yes, logically it kind of is what with it being a visual medium and all, but when it comes down to it, in order to be a photographer, you have to photograph. You have to actively shoot pictures. Even if nobody sees the images; maybe even if you don’t ever see the images yourself. If you’re not shooting, you’re not a photographer. You might be a photography enthusiast, critic or fan, but all those are passive. I was being passive. Vivian Maier’s tenacity inspired me to, in the words of one of my favorite current photographers and mentors, GOYA or ‘get off your ass’ and shoot.

Thanks Vivian.

So what did I do?

I did the only logical thing possible. I researched and bought a Vivian-style old school twin lens reflex camera and some 120 film from eBay.  🙂   The Rolleiflex’s were a little a lot out of my price range, so I happily bought a Minolta Autocord, who some say is a hidden jewel among the TLR world. Why the new camera you ask? Why didn’t I just pick up my DSLR and shoot? Well remember how I said I missed the slow, mysterious and methodical process photography used to have for me? Well here it was. In a small, boxy, all-metal, totally manual and meter-less camera from 1958 that I had never even touched before owning. And film? What’s that? I haven’t shot film in literally years and never medium format. I was challenged. I was inspired. And it was time to shoot.

And so I did.

And all was right with the world.

(Well not really, but it seemed like a fitting place to end the longest blog post I’ve possibly ever written. Stay tuned to see results. If by chance anyone has actually stuck with it and read this entire post, kindly leave your name and address in the comments and I’ll send you some cookies or a lovely card or a gold star in the mail as a thank you. 🙂 )

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