Last week I spent an entire day walking up and down the streets of a seaside town on a garden tour. The gardens, were to say the least, gorgeous, various, and photogenic. But the absolute best shots were the people visiting the town or working there.
As an amateur photographer, I know the rules against taking intrusive photos. As a writer, I know how to use what I see in whatever I’m writing. The rules of behavior are different for writers and photographers, and I have yet to learn how to use a camera to spy on people on the street without getting caught, though I can easily do so as a writer. This has come to the fore after seeing a terrific film documentary about an unknown photographer, truly one of the almost-lost great artists of her generation. Finding Vivian Maier begins when a young man, looking for images of old Chicago, buys a trunk full of negatives at auction.
Vivian emerges as a very odd creature who sought out the marginal, outcast, and rejected of society. Her images are startling, arresting, striking, moving. She saw what most people choose not to see, and are even trained not to see. Years ago a colleague wondered aloud how a good friend born into a high caste in India could go about every day and not see or be moved by the suffering all around her. The same certainly can be said of many in the States. But Vivian was different. She never turned away from the suffering; instead she sought them out. She left behind over 100,000 negatives and dozens of rolls of undeveloped color film. It appears, by the end of the movie, that the only reason she didn't present her work to the world at large was because she probably didn't know how to go about it. That and her tendency to hoarding would have derailed her efforts to become established as a photographer. She was very peculiar.
Vivian didn't care what people thought of her. Most artists in any medium or genre feel much the same. But we usually acknowledge the boundaries of mainstream society and honor them. Vivian tripped over them and kept going, most of the time. She used a Rolleiflex, which gives the photographer a distinct advantage. She can hold the camera at waist level, focus and shoot, without the object of her attentions appreciating that a photograph is being taken. The current popular cameras (Canon, Nikon, Pentax, etc.) are held up to the eye, which gives away what we're doing. I use a Pentax, and even when looking through a window, anyone can tell what I'm up to. You can see the problem. It's easier for a writer.
I may not be able to photograph strangers on the street without first getting permission and overcoming my innate reluctance to invade another's privacy, but I can write down everything I see to use in a story or a novel without regard to its origins. Whenever anyone asks if I write about real people, my answer is always no. But I often encounter an image that is so memorable, so vivid, that I have to use it. The image is a springboard to something else; it is not a record of real life.
Vivian's life teaches something else. She became a nanny so she could be outdoors more, which for her meant the opportunity to photograph. She led her charges into the parts of town other people tried to avoid. To get the photographs she wanted, she had to be fearless. For any artist or writer, to get the result we want we have to drive forward, crush any doubts, and focus strictly on the work. We have to be fearless in another way.
Any good work of art (or craft) brings to the viewer the opportunity to see something as if for the first time. The creator records the experience, lives it and preserves it for another. And the reader or viewer is given a new set of eyes, a new experience of the mundane, after which it is no longer mundane. Artists like Vivian Maier remind us of this, and thereby enrich our work. As peculiar as she was, she could see beyond the veils of society and left behind for us a little of what she saw.
My series character Anita Ray uses her camera all the time, for her work and for herinvestigations. She doesn't have to worry when someone challenges her because she is an established photographer, with a gallery of her own. I'm not planning on getting her a Rolleiflex to make it even easier. They cost about $5,000. But I may give her a few things to worry about when someone sees her photographing a private home or a dead body. Why would she be doing that?
Anita's newest adventure is For the Love of Parvati, where she does photograph a corpse.
To learn more about Vivian Maier and see her photographs, go to http://www.vivianmaier.com
To learn more about the documentary film, go to http://www.vivianmaier.com/film-finding-vivian-maier/