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I, camera

Updated: Jan 30

The photographer Vivian Maier...

Intriguing. Enigmatic. For me, the ultimate 'secret' photographer. She left behind an incredible body of work. By turns, brilliant, extraordinary and rarely - if ever - 'routine'. And yet, for all the films and books produced about her since the discovery of her work in 2007, she has remained somehow 'unknowable'.

It appears that Vivian cared little for sharing the story of her life - let alone her unique imagery - which was only narrowly saved from being lost forever after her death.

Maier was on her own private mission to capture the world as she saw it. A genius photographer who appeared to have no interest in public recognition.

And yet she took a very large number of self-portraits.


I believe that Maier actually cared very much to be remembered - and I think she cared very much about the fate of her pictures. The key to the meaning of her secret mission is in those many self-portraits that she took.

As Vivian made her tracks through life, these self-portraits - always with her camera clearly in hand - were her way of signing that she was the author of the huge archive she would leave behind; her image indelibly embedded in the rolls of film that would ultimately become her legacy.

Maier's public life was that of a nanny. No one had any idea that she was a lifelong devoted photographer. The success of her work in the time since her death is in no small part due to the revelation of her presence in the archive - here is that mysterious woman with a camera: the real Vivian Maier; on a mission to capture the world around her; producing images that are, like her, intriguing, enigmatic, extraordinary.

This much we know: Vivian was compelled to become a photographer because she wanted to document everything around her - and that compulsion; that desire to record everything meant also capturing images of herself because she recognised that she was part of her world - and the author of her own unique place in it.

We may know very little about her as a woman but Maier's mind-set as a photographer is echoed in the work of many other photographers; the need to document and the desire to discover themselves through their take on the world.

Richard Avedon Inge Morath Robert Doisneau

As photographers, we frame the world with our cameras - the photographer unseen; except when they are the subject. At some point, we all find ourselves asking - 'what does photography mean to me?' and 'Why take photographs at all?' Setting aside commercial reasons for picking up a camera, I guess most of us start taking photographs because we feel compelled to do so. We don't choose photography; it chooses us. I've heard actors reflect that they took up acting not because they wanted to act but because they had to act; they needed to.

We have to take photographs. Because we need to.


In the Leica Manual from 1935, photographer Manuel Komroff offered his thoughts-

'The world passes before us in this strange one-way street we call time. The traffic is in one direction, from the present to something that very soon becomes the past. It cannot be reversed. The hands cannot turn backward. And the things we see now, we will never see again...

...And this is where creative photography begins; capturing those fleeting moments; our lives, experiences and emotions demanding from each of us a unique response as photographers. And our pictures will be different, because our minds are different.

Henri Cartier Bresson remembered the moment he was compelled to become a photographer. In 1932, when he first saw Martin Munkacsi's photograph of boys running into the surf in Liberia, he was spurred into action-

‘‘I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said, ‘Damn it,’ took my camera and went out into the street.’’ The image, Cartier-Bresson said, inspired his own approach, showing him that ‘‘photography could reach eternity through the moment.’

And, just like Maier, Cartier-Bresson was compelled to capture self-portraits along the way...

Cartier-Bresson in 1932

Everybody (well, nearly everybody) takes 'selfies' - and photographers are no exception. Their images are just more artful than most. There is the snap 'selfie' and then there is the carefully considered self-portrait. Whatever the record made, our lives are so very brief and the world often so very confusing that it is no wonder we want to at least confirm our existence.

Stanley Kubrick, that photographer turned film maker seemed always painfully aware of his mortality - and spoke of his desire to leave his mark- “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent... However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

We photographers are all happy to lose ourselves in our own photographic universe - and so, with our cameras, we find our own light and make our contribution to the world. And we are searching for ourselves along the way. Our self-portraits are inextricably linked to ideas of identity; images that are, on the one hand, personal but, on the other hand, universal.

Maier's self portraits announce- 'here I am in my world... But, it is your world, too' We have her images. And we have the images of her. We really do not need any more than that because her persona and her work achieve a kind of perfect balance. And I think Vivian knew this. Her pictures speak for themselves... Or rather, invite you to question what you see - just as she did when she fired the shutter. She was the observer. A witness of her time.

Look again at Cartier-Bresson; he gave interviews, occasionally allowed himself to be photographed and was a founding father and key part of the world famous Magnum Photo Agency - and yet we really don't know that much about him either. His interviews are fractious and frustratingly oblique and his general anarchic attitude repels rather than attracts us to his persona. He didn't care what people thought of him because his pictures were there to do the communicating for him. He really is just as unknowable as Vivian Maier.

Great artists are rarely articulate about their work - or, often, just don't want to talk about it. The work must speak for itself. There is the dialogue the creative mind has with the art it creates and then there is the highly subjective response of those others that come to see.

What marks the world famous Cartier-Bresson on the one hand and the unknown Vivian Maier on the other is that they both shared a great and single-minded drive to capture the world as they saw it. They worked without compromise - compelled by a towering ambition to craft their unique image of the world.

We all have different ways of seeing. Your photography must be for you before it is for anybody else.

Recently I found an inscription written by my father in one of the books I inherited from him. 'Look to yourself and do what you may while you may; be a part of your time and care for it'

We photographers must strive always to do our best as we travel down that one-way street called time -

Photo by Cartier-Bresson Photo by Vivian Maier

...We are all looking for those moments - those images - that are transcendent. And we are the creatures of this time our cameras attempt to define.

Give yourself to your photography - capture and express your true feelings about the world around you. And, with your camera, you might just find your true self as well.

Vivian died at the age of 83 - two years after her work had been removed from the storage she could no longer afford to pay for. She died with no idea of its fate. A victim of poverty. An unknown photographer to the end.

Her work was saved by the photographer John Maloof - who bid on an auction lot of photographic negatives of Chicago street scenes - and found that he had stumbled across a part of the vast and unseen archive of images taken by Vivian Maier.

Thank you John, for saving Vivian's work and making the world a richer place by sharing her wonderful images.

And see her work here:

Blog copyright Matthew Whiteman January 2024

images strictly copyright their respective estates

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