thoughts on vivian maier & the purpose of photography

This past weekend, I left Marcus and Alex to their own devices, and treated myself to a matinee of a movie I had been dying to see:  Finding Vivian Maier.  Have you heard the story behind this movie?  In a nutshell, this 26-year-old guy, John Maloof, who was working on a personal project on the history of a particular Chicago neighbourhood, went to an auction to buy what he hoped would be negatives of Chicago in the 60s.  While the negatives he purchased didn't work for his project, he realized that the images were good ... really good.  He began to research who was behind the images, and found that they were taken by a prolific but unknown photographer -- Vivian Maier.   Maier turned out to be a very secretive nanny who apparently didn't share any of her work with anyone.  She also never had any children or family to speak of, and died alone, leaving behind her images in a locked storage building.  Maloof, through his work, has ended up with a collection of over 100,000 of her negatives (many of them unexposed), and has made it his life mission to bring the work and the life of Vivian Maier to light.  The result is this documentary, Finding Vivian Maier.

I won't tell you about the documentary (except to say that while it's a great film, be warned: it's not exactly a feel-good movie), but one of the biggest mysteries he's trying to solve is why someone would take so many photographs, particularly someone who, by all experts' accounts, would have been heralded as one of the greatest photographers of her time, and not share them with anyone.  It's a question I've been mulling over since seeing the documentary.

What I think is interesting is that we're learning of this story and struggling to find an answer to that particular question in a time when the concept of not sharing a photograph is almost unheard of.  I know I'm guilty of this:  as passionate as I am about photography, I don't know that I would've ever become so prolific if I didn't have a website to share my work.  And honestly, I know very few people who have a camera  -- or heck, a cameraphone -- who don't share images on Instagram or on Facebook, or at the very least email images to their families and friends.  Yes, of course, I take photographs for personal reasons, and to record our family life for our daughter, no question -- but if one day, someone told me that I could only use my camera to print images that wouldn't be shared with anyone, ever, that I was to lock the images away with the intent of never sharing them with another soul, would I do it?  I can't say I would.  Even if Chookooloonks were to disappear, I would still intend my photographs to be seen, if only by emailing them to friends, or printing them in albums to share with my family, and passed down to my daughter's kids.  To me, no matter the reason behind taking any photograph -- taken to jog a memory, or to capture a moment, or simply for posterity's sake --  photographs are meant to be seen.

But then I remind myself that she took most of her photographs during a time when there wasn't social media or the means to share photographs easily in the first place.  So maybe it wasn't so much that she didn't want to share her photos, but that it would have never occurred to her to do it in the first place:  after all, she had a full-time job and no family to speak of, so why would she share her images, even with her employers?   

I don't know, man.  What do you think?  Can you imagine keeping your photographs secret from everyone?  What, ultimately, is your intent and/or motivation when you shoot?

In any event, you can see some of Vivian Maier's amazing work here -- it really is stunning (and I love that many of her images are selfies -- given how the "selfie" is derided so much these days, I'm grateful that we have these images of her).   And I do love that the movie makes me ask the question "why I shoot" a little deeper.  I figure anything that makes me explore the motivations behind my passions has to be a good thing.


Song:  Invisible by Will. I. Am

If you're interested in exploring your own motivations behind your passions, consider joining me for a 2-day retreat in October, right here in Houston, Texas!  Registration for the LimeLight Sessions is now open, and filling up fast -- I'd love if you'd join me.  Click here to learn more and to register at early bird pricing.