Anyone who talks to me for more than ten minutes knows I am a huge fan of the Public Radio International show, This American Life. On Thursday night, we went to see the TAL Live Show, streamed to a local movie theater. As always, the show was funny, touching, and a little weird, sharing the most unbelievable stories from everyday life that Ira Glass and his crew can find.
An accidental photographer
One of the most fascinating stories that they featured was of the life and collection of Vivian Maier. In 2007, a storage locker in Chicago was auctioned off after the payment went delinquent. Amidst decades worth of rotting newspaper and rubbish, the buyer found over 100,000 negatives, thousands of prints, and countless undeveloped rolls of film. The photos turned out to belong to Vivian Maier who was not trained as an artist but worked as a nanny for almost 40 years and documented her everyday life through photography. She loved to travel, and spent six months exploring Africa, Asia and South America, something that was unthinkable for a single woman in 1959! Even when she was not traveling, she was adventurous and would explore her city looking for beauty in the otherwise mundane. She was an extremely private person, but meticulously documented her life in photos, all of which she hid from the world for decades until the day that storage shed was auctioned off.
I’ve been tremendously inspired by her work! She seemed to have a fearless ability to take close-ups of strangers she met in the street. Her images also captured really interesting scenes of everyday life that other people were certain to overlook.
Here are a few lessons for photography (and life) that I imagine she might have shared:
- Have your camera with you all of the time! Obvious of course, but I often miss opportunities for interesting shots when I least expect I’ll have anything to photograph. Vivian Maier never left the house without her bulky 1950’s camera around her neck–my lightweight little Lumix (and even my relatively compact Nikon 5100 DSLR!) are nothing in comparison! Suck it up and take the camera.
- Take lots of photos. Maier took almost 100 photos a day in a pre-digital world where film and processing materials were expensive and time consuming. Today, memory cards are cheap–don’t be afraid to fill them up!
- Look up, look down, and look through things. The most amazing thing that Maier did was to capture views of the world that people are too busy or hurried to see. Two of my favorite shots are of a little girl’s hand pressed against the inside of a parked car’s steamed up window, and several photos zoomed in to the backs of legs–knobby knees, chubby ankles and all.
- Don’t be afraid to stick your camera in someone’s face. Her photos showed incredible bravery in getting close and candid shots of strangers she met in the street. I confessed my fear of this recently to a travel blogger who is very good at this and he responded assuring me that it gets easier the more you do it.
- Go on photographic excursions every day. As a nanny, Maier frequently took the children to new neighborhoods to walk around and into novel situations. For example, she once convinced the milk man to drive the kids home from school in his truck. Another time she brought home a dead snake for them to examine up close. Obviously the kids often thought she was weird, but they expanded their view of the world and developed an appreciation for things they would never have known.
- Appreciate places both near and far. Though she loved to travel, Maier didn’t need to go to an exotic destination to find beauty and excitement in the world. She would find it at home while playing in the back yard with the children or while peering out the window on the bus to the grocery store. This is a perspective on the world that I try to encourage in myself and remember in creating my blog (note the tag line, “finding adventure every single day”).
- Care about the world and the people that are in it. Her most striking photos were of children as well as the poor and working-class, not just in the developing world, but people she met on the streets of her own community. She had an amazing sensitivity for their struggles shown through their scowls and lined faces and it was clear that remaining aware of their struggles was something that was important to her.
You can see more of Vivian Maier’s photos here or by watching the following video:
And will someone please buy me this newly-released book of her photos for my upcoming birthday (hint…hint).
Thanks Mom, for Cassie’s early birthday present!
Nomadic Samuel says
Thanks for the mention in this article! 🙂 The photos from the gallery you posted are wonderful examples of street photography. I especially like the use of shadows and silhouettes in many of the shots. I think ‘street photography’ is one of the more tricky genres since you can’t recompose, ask permission (in all circumstances) or ask your subject to stand still; however, it’s also one of the most rewarding. It certainly does get easier with more practice!
Cassie Kifer says
No problem! You’ve posted some really useful photography tips along with your shots that I’ve learned a lot from, so thanks! And yes, she’s wonderful. The shadows are so haunting, especially that self portrait in the upper left corner! And the fact that she was doing this all on film in one take–amazing!
a great photographer of people, that Vivian Maier.
Cassie Kifer says
Indeed! Can you imagine uncovering all those amazing photos in a storage shed like that? Crazy!