Saturday, 17 May 2014

We can all take photos like Vivian Maier - can we?

Fans of photography will be doubly thrilled that the new documentary film about the life and work of reclusive American photographer Vivian Maier has just appeared in Warsaw's cinemas, just as a six-week long exhibition of her work (represented by 40 prints) has started at Warsaw's Leica Gallery (ul. Mysia 3, to 23 June).

The Vivian Maier story is amazing. A woman who worked all her life as a nanny owned a professional-quality camera (a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex which takes 6cm x 6cm negatives) and took it with her at all times, snapping street scenes. She took over 150,000 photos in her lifetime, had relatively few of them printed, none exhibited.

She died two years after a young collector and historian, John Maloof, chanced upon a cache of her negatives at a storage locker auction. The Vivian Maier story is as much a story of John Maloof, who recognised the intrinsic value of what he'd discovered, then sought to uncover the facts about Ms Maier and get her photos into the public eye.

The photos are remarkable - they rank alongside the works of some of the great photographers of the 20th Century - Elliot Erwitt being one that readily springs to mind. And yet, as a person Vivian Maier was incredibly withdrawn, obsessive (and obsessive hoarder too). We know much about her from the families that employed her as a nanny, grown-up children talking about going on walks with her to the rough parts of town as she photographed street scenes. Yet we don't know where she learned her craft. Were there piles of Popular Photography among her boxes of possessions? Did she attend night school?

Vivian Maier's visual style was predicated to a large degree by her equipment. Shooting with the camera at waist height, staring down onto the focusing screen from above, she'd avoid eye contact with her subject. The square format meant one less compositional issue to worry about - whether to hold the camera vertically or horizontally. By the 1960s, the Rolleiflex appeared old-fashioned; her subjects did not take her as seriously as they would have taken a male photographer raising a single-lens reflex camera like a Nikon F to his eye. The Rolleiflex had one, non-interchangeable lens, with a fixed focal length of 80mm (equivalent of 48mm on a 35mm or FX camera, 32mm on a DX camera). In other words, neither a wide-angle nor a telephoto lens; one that approximates the angle of view of the human eye. To zoom the Rolleiflex, simply walk backwards or forwards until you get the right composition in your viewfinder. And you are limited to just 12 shots before you have to change film.

She took an average of around 30-40 rolls of film a month, every month, for over three decades. A prodigious output - in later years she'd not even get round to having the films processed (all done by photo labs - she didn't have her own darkroom). Vivian Maier recorded a world that was being increasingly covered by photography, yet compared to today - when an easy-to-use digital camera is in the hands of one-third of mankind, ready to record everything and share it online - there was very little like this around.

To take photos like Vivian Maier these days is simple. Have a camera around your neck wherever you go. And snap. Snap and snap. There's no longer any cost of developing your photos - just upload them to your computer. You want black and white? Strip out the colour using photo editing software. You want square format? Crop to fit. Autofocus means you can have your camera at waist height, like Ms Maier did, dangling from its strap. You don't even need to look down onto the focusing screen to get the image sharp - the camera will do it for you. Photography has never been cheaper or technically easier.

Just as an experiment, I gave eight photos I've taken over the course of the past two weeks the Vivian Maier treatment. Square crop, 100% colour desaturation, white frame. I tend not to upload my street photography online, but just this once, here's a short burst. Starting with one taken accidentally at the Leica Gallery (below)...

Below: Warsaw, May 2014
Below: Warsaw, May 2014
Below: Warsaw, May 2014
Below: Warsaw, May 2014
Below: Warsaw, May 2014
Below: Warsaw, May 2014
Below: Warsaw, May 2014
Below: London, May 2014
And finally a Vivian Maier-style self portrait in a mirror!

The bulk of what I snapped I binned - either unsharp or uninteresting. The trick is in the editing. And here's where the hard work that John Maloof put into this project after his lucky find has paid off. If the canon of Ms Maier's work turns out to be some 1,000 images, of which 100 become instantly recognisable by future generations, it will be as much the merit of Mr Maloof in his role as Ms Maier's curator as of the photographer herself.

We can all take photos like Vivian Maier - but first we have to want to.

This time last year:
Ethereal and transient

This time two years ago:
Wrocław railway station before the Euro football championships

This time three years ago:
By tram to Boernerowo

This time five years ago:
Food-Industrial Shop, rural USA or Poland

This time seven years ago:
Twilight time, Jeziorki

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