Day Trip of Urban Apertures

Street photography is challenging. It’s a specific approach to image making that can include people, typically in public places, but doesn’t have to. The photographer is on call when doing this style of shooting, to see life as it is happening moment by moment. It’s very different from setting up a portrait with a subject who knows they’re being photographed.

I visited New York Saturday to meet Orville Robertson who I hadn’t seen in decades. We considered where to meet if we were going to do ‘street photography’ and decided Washington Square Park would be active. The park which is usually popular, was filled to capacity with a Hare Krishna festival going on.

Orville Robertson

Orville Robertson

Food vendors occupied pathways leading to the center fountain which was turned on and children splashed about in the pool of water. Music and chanting sounded out loud giving energy to the atmosphere.

My own photography of people is usually assignment driven. Exploring the city with camera in hand reminded me of why I enjoy making pictures. I saw conversations taking place between people without hearing what they said. Snapping the shutter in time to facial expressions were clues to what dialogue was taking place.

I could only imagine the thoughts of those who walked or sat alone. Whatever I captured is conjecture. With this kind of photography, interpretation is always up to the viewer.

An urban landscape presents opportunity to see bits of history. Architecture is the calling card of former years. Along Bleecker Street one such gem has the ‘Mill House No 1’ impressed within the facade overhead an entrance that is boarded up. With an assist from Google I discovered the building was designed by Ernest Flagg in 1897 for Darius Ogden Mills, a banker, investor, mining and railway executive and philanthropist. Investor and architect shared a common vision – to improve the lives of those who could use help. Flagg was known to be an advocate for urban reform.

We had lunch and headed back to the park to photograph, and as we walked I started shooting, not sure exactly what I captured. I used a Sony NEX5 camera which has a flip-up window and allows me to shoot waist level using the window as my viewfinder. It is sneaky shooting – an indirect way of looking at subjects so it’s not obvious to them they are being photographed.

A woman entertained children as she transformed liquid soap into bubbles through a homemade contraption. It was a series of happy moments…simple and sweet.

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Obscure No More: Vivian Maier Gains Fans Posthumously

Who was she? Who was Vivian Maier? We know she was a prolific photographer and if she were alive today she would have followers on every social media platform. If it were up to John Maloof, the man responsible for bringing her name and talent to light, Maier’s photography deserves the same rank and notoriety as many of her contemporaries, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, Diane Arbus and Mary Ellen Mark whose photographic styles defined an era. The difference between Maier and those who made names for themselves in photography is that Maier’s work remained hidden – tucked away in boxes of undeveloped film and negatives that had never been printed.

There are different levels of appreciation for Maloof’s and fellow director, Charlie Siskel’s 2013 documentary film, ‘Finding Vivian Maier‘. First there’s the historic aspect. Maier lived and produced a substantial body of work over the course of her working career. Maier was born February 1, 1926 in New York City and died April 1, 2009 in Chicago, where she spent forty years working as a nanny.

Maloof’s story of finding a collection of negatives at an auction, bidding and purchasing the collection, and subsequently tracking Maier’s collections of artifacts including clothing, souvenirs, 8 mm films, diaries, letters and miscellaneous mementos, is now part of the Maier’s story partly because the find was analogous to hitting a photographic jackpot and partly because the find represented a puzzle as to what motivated this unassuming woman to chronicle her life as defined by her role as caretaker of others, social observer of the goings on around her as she lived out her days.

Photos by Vivian Maier

Photos by Vivian Maier

Maloof, a real estate agent and historian recognized the value of the images after initially putting aside the work after purchase. When Maloof began looking at the negatives he realized the value of the images as they showed great street photography appeal for that genre. Maloof posted the photographs on Flickr, an online photography community for feedback, and thus begins his obsession with Vivian Maier.

As the story unfolds, curiosity about Maier grows partly because she was such a private person and her constant image making while nannying was different than what you’d expect from someone who spent their life in that capacity. She seemed to use her position of working class nanny, to be ‘seen and not heard’ beyond what she was there to do – care for children, to cultivate her craft. Only once during the film does Maloof uncover Maier’s intent on having her work printed. Maier made repeated efforts to conceal her identity throughout her life rather than to publicize her work.  Maier, collected everything from receipts to newspapers showing the horrific in news stories: rape, murder and human impropriety. The people who knew her, her now grown charges, revealed they saw Maier as an enigma and hoarder.

Maloof and Siskel let those who knew Maier tell her story alongside her photographs, which speak their own language. It’s a film worth seeing for anyone who likes photography. The mystery over what drove Maier to create her own legacy, albeit posthumously, is up to the viewer to conclude.