Last Thursday Diane and I went to the County Theatre in Doylestown to see “Finding Vivian Maier.” Although I knew the outline of the story, I was intrigued and excited at what I saw. Vivian was discovered, found by a young historian John Maloof. He purchased a box of negatives in 2007 at a Chicago auction. When Maloff looked at the negatives he had a suspicion that they were pretty good. That would prove an understatement. Maloof would eventually uncover over 100,000 images many negatives but many never developed still in film canisters. As he explored a variety of material purchased with the negatives — newspapers, letters, bills, and a variety of strange collections, he found Vivian Maier. She was New York born, French ancestry and had worked much of her life as a nanny for wealthy families. Her legacy was a collection of photographs, few printed, none published but photographs that put her in the company of the greatest street photographers — Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. Maloff has created a small cottage industry, selling prints, publishing books, and making the documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier” with Charlie Siskel. In the film, photographers Mary Ellen Marks and Joel Meyerowitz attest to the quality and uniqueness of Vivan’s images. The parents who hired her and the children she watched helped Maloof tell Vivian’s story. An unfortunate disclosure was her erratic meanness to some of the children. But most puzzling was why take all these pictures and never print or share them. Maloof suspects that Vivian knew she was a good even a great photographer.
Vivian’s story grabbed my attention because of my personal interest in photography. And as I begin my retirement chapter of life, I am looking to discover who I am. What have I done; what will I do with the time I have left. So in my next few blogs I will search a bit into my past. Peeling away the layers, pentimento imagery. Teacher, writer, local historian, parent, grandparent, photographer. These and other have roles have defined my point of view; my perspective.
My first camera was a small Kodak brownie. I still have some of the square black and white pictures — many of my sisters, candids but just as often in model poses. In college I borrower my father’s 35mm Argus. Both cameras were gifts from my Aunt Carol, a bit of a tomboy who shared her many hobbies with us. But I never took many pictures with the Argus. At Boston College, I became interested in moving pictures, bought a movie camera and made several very amateur films. The most developed was a 45 minute documentary about the Harcourt leather book bindery where I worked for several years. Unfortunately I recently mailed the footage to CA company to have it digitized and they lost the film. They did transfer my Peace Corps training film.
In the early 1970s , when I began to work at Holy Ghost Prep, I returned to still photography. Then Headmaster Father Hanley actually gave me an old enlarger that was not being used. I set up a darkroom in our New Hope rental. Eventually I bought new equipment at HGP, set up a darkroom and had several Pentax cameras to lend to students. For years we had a fairly active camera club.
I also began to shoot all kind of pictures. Often on my way home from school I would take back roads photographing rural and small town Bucks County. In 1974′ Diane spent the summer with friends in Maine. My intention was to write. I didn’t but at the end of the summer I signed up for a week long workshop at the newly opened Maine Photographic Workshop. We spent a week on a Maine Island working with National Geographic photographer Bill Curtsinger. Bill influenced me in many ways. I would then usually use slide film (a standard for Geographic photographers); shoot, shoot, shoot (film was the cheapest part of being a photographer). Bill also taught me a lot about composition, lighting, focal length of lens. We returned to the mainland, developed our film and critiqued each other’s work.
The next year I returned to the Workshops for two programs. The first was with Bruce Dale, another Geographic photographer. Bruce took one look at my portfolio and said “you don’t have any pictures of people.” My response was that my only people pictures were family — i.e. not part of my “creative” work. Bruce said that had to change. I spent the week on the streets of Camden and Rockport shooting people. With Bruce’s help I learned to sneak pictures but more frequently to engage the subject, spending time with them, getting to know them. It had a tremendous influence on my photography.
The second workshop in 1975 was with Ernst Haas, at the time one of the best color photographers in the world. His most famous image is the original Marlboro Man pictures. The first day Ernst had us sit in a circle and think about talk about color. We didn’t touch a camera or take a picture. At one point he said there should be the point of a nail on the shutter so you really wanted the picture, knew it was right, before you pushed the shutter with a bit of pain. Ernst gave us several color related assignments — I remember spending one day at a rural fair. Or the series of pictures I did — blue and white.
The experiences at the Maine Workshops lead to several developments in my photography. The first was Diane and I went to England in 1976. My purpose (I always thought there had to be a purpose to travel) was to photograph people. And I did. We met all kinds of people on the street, on farms, on bicycles, young people and old people. Were were invited inside apartments and houses. It was an amazing experience. The second development was I began to send photographs (slides) to stock agencies. One was Shostal in New York and the other was H. Armstrong Roberts in Philadelphia. I never sold a lot of pictures but a few hundred here and there was always appreciated. Although both companies were sold, my images are still with a stock agency and I occasionally get a royalty.
For several years, I considered photography a business. Along with the stock sales, I did a few weddings and yearbooks. I mounted a few shows and briefly tried to sell at craft shows. But by the mid 1980s, I was busy with work and classes at Temple and my photography business faded. My shooting became limited to family and travel.
It blossomed again in the 1990s, with Ayudanica, the service project Rob Buscaglia and I ran to Nicaragua for about 10 years. I spoke virtually no Spanish. So my camera (thanks Bruce) became a means of communication. I photographed the people in our village of Monte Rosa, especially the kids. My favorite was exploring and meeting people in the markets, workers in shop, artists, homeless kids, street people. I came back every year with rolls And rolls of slides, some color film, and near the end some digital. The following year I would take copies of the pictures to Nicaragua and give them to the subjects. When you do this year after year, you develop friendships that go beyond the photographic exchange.
As our Nicaraguan project came to an end, I made an abrupt transition to digital. My small digital was upgraded to a Canon Rebel ( gift of Diane and my daughter, Jenny). But my photography became limited to the typical family shots and some travel pictures. I used the camera much like my first brownie — point and shoot.
As I look back on my interest in meeting people and communicating through photography, I am looking to learn more about digital and the modern dark room — computers. But I may also explore using some traditional film. Like phonograph records or written letters, older technologies have a unique quality sometimes lost with newer technology.
In any case, photography has and will be a part of my life. Exploring my past photographs may guide my future work. And of course there are other interest, more layers to who I have Been that I need to explore peeling back the layers covered in time. Only then can I look around the corner.