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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-