The instructor of my photography class made an offhand comment Monday about a fascinating twentieth-century photographer, Vivian Maier, whose work has been recently discovered, so of course I went home and obsessively researched her. Have you heard this story? It’s amazing. Maier was a woman from a French family who was born in Manhattan, grew up in France, and ended up as a nanny for several families in Chicago. Oh yeah, and somehow (it’s not entirely known) she learned how to take great – really great – pictures.
A few years back, over 100,000 negatives and rolls of undeveloped film were found in a storage locker belonging to Ms. Maier. As purchasers of the film started to develop the photos, they realized they had unearthed a genius of street photography from the 1950s-1960s. These negatives and undeveloped rolls of film documented the people and places captured by Maier’s incredible eye and gift. Her subjects are people of all ages and shapes and colors. In looking through her pictures, what seems to bind all her subjects together is that they appear remarkably comfortable, candid, and open to this stranger taking their pictures.
Undeveloped. I can’t stop thinking about that word. She took over 100,000 photos! But she didn’t share them with anyone. She didn’t even develop all of them to share them with herself. I have to wonder – what was she doing? What was she thinking as she racked up roll upon roll of film? Why didn’t she want to see how the pictures turned out?
Many years ago as a graduate student, I was doing research in the library and stumbled across a quote from Henry Miller as I skimmed someone’s bound dissertation. These words have stuck with me ever since:
Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.
Vivian Maier uttered profound truths in her photographs. I am glad to have the chance to witness them.
All images by Vivian Maier. They can be found on www.vivianmaier.com, copyright Maloof Collection. Permission requested.