Tag Archives: Vivian Maier

Arts

Visions Within Visions

aibeiaiaaabdcnpl08k1v8nxccildmnhcmrfcghvdg8qkdawndk3yzdmy2rkyznjmgzjmwuwytg3mgy0nddknzk4ntaxyjjjzwmwavlukvfh8byqtxfe95eifc3ka9efCarleton Thomas Anderson is a 74 year old retired physician interested in photography, design, writing and history. He and his wife Anne call Lexington home. They have two children and two grandchildren.  “My main diversions are horses, bicycling, Nepalese food and reading,” says Anderson. “We watch West Wing every election cycle hoping to rekindle our optimism. We are currently watching it for the fifth time.”

UnderMain was tipped about Anderson’s work in blending photography, art and video by Neil Kesterson, owner of Dynamix Productions in Lexington, the studio where much of the audio you will soon hear was recorded. Kesterson mentioned that Anderson had been engaged in a unique pursuit: discovering the elements of street photography, his genre of choice, in the paintings of certain noted artists.

We were intrigued. Questions followed.

UnderMain: What inspired you to take up street photography?

Anderson: To me the best portraits are of people unaware of the camera. On the street there is a greater chance for such candid shots. Also, the street is a public place where the photographer has a great deal of latitude about what is permitted. I’ve been inspired by street photographers like Saul Leiter and Vivian Maier. What I’ve learned from them over the years is that I have to spend a great deal of time walking to get very few photographs of any value. This is just the nature of the beast.

UnderMain: What’s in your camera bag?

Anderson: A Sony a6000 with Sony 24 mm f1.8

UnderMain: In what ways has the pursuit of an interest in street photography served you?

Anderson: Street photography has definitely made me a better person because I’ve had to decide what photographs of people should be made and what photographs should not be made. I’m talking about ethical choices. Do you take a picture of a homeless person? Do you take a picture of a person in a vulnerable situation? Are you simply taking a photograph to exploit somebody else? The photographs I take must reveal something important about the human condition or something interesting about the built environment of the street (architecturally interesting shots).

Photo by Carlton Thomas Anderson

Photo by Carleton Thomas Anderson

UnderMain: What do you strive for in the images that you capture?

Anderson: Trying to find something interesting to reveal about the human condition is one of the most difficult kinds of photography there is. I’ve learned to be less fixated on what camera I have and what settings I’m using and more attentive to what my eye sees. I want to see something spontaneous, revealing, and visually interesting. This takes a lot of work.

UnderMain: Is there a connection between your interest in street photography and the concept of the videos you have produced about certain artists and their works?

Anderson: During the Great Depression the United States government funded a project where photographers would fan out across the country and photograph the effects the depression was having on people. These photographs are public and available to anyone to use for whatever purpose. They can be obtained from the Library of Congress website. As a result of this easy access I spent a lot of time looking at the photographs and grew to value the work of some of the photographers. To make a video I needed not only the photographs but other material that would make for an interesting story. In the 60s the government funded interviews with some of the depression era photographers and this provided narrative for a video about the photographers work. The three most interesting photographers were Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange, and John Vachon. For John Vachon I had letters he wrote home from the field to his wife Penny. These letters together with material from interviews provided the basis for his video. In the course of getting permission to use John’s letters I had an opportunity to speak with his daughter, Ann. This added further context. All these government  photographs were taken out in the field and on the street so they fit beautifully with my interest in street photography.

UnderMain: What motivates you to produce these videos?

Anderson: I’m very curious about these photographers I mentioned. Making a video answers a lot of my questions about their lives and gives me insight into their art. Without the video I wouldn’t really have a firm grasp on what they were trying to accomplish. The videos on Édouard Manet and Edward Hopper interested me because they were paint artists who focused a lot of their attention on street images and had interesting lives. In particular the video on Edward Hopper includes a lot of material from letters his wife, Josephine, wrote about their marriage and his art.

UnderMain: What’s the criteria used to select the artists portrayed in the videos?

Anderson: The artists I selected had to have interesting stories to go along with their photographs. Their personal stories have to add to our understanding of their art.

UnderMain: How many videos have you produced?

Thirteen.

UnderMain: Can you briefly describe the process you follow in putting them together?

Anderson: First, I have to write the narrative keeping in mind what photographs or artwork I have available to use. I then use the images over the narrative to tell the story. Next, I select music  appropriate to go along with the finished video. I have used my own voice for many of these. In the Dorothea Lange video my wife, Anne, provided the voice for Dorothea.

Written by Carleton Thomas Anderson - Jo Hopper played by Laurie Genet Preston

However, once I learned about the availability of professional voice talent in Lexington from my friend Neil Kesterson and the services his studio (Dynamix Productions) could provide me I began using professional voices. I’ve never looked back. It will have to be professional voice talent from now on.

UnderMain: Favorites among them?

Anderson: Ben Shahn and Dorothea Lange. The two videos about the paint artists, Edward Hopper and Edward Manet are particular favorites.

UnderMain: Do you plan to continue? If so, what other artists are on your “to do” list?

Anderson: None, right now. I’ve taken time off from photography to write a novel about the Great Depression inspired by my immersion in the photographs from this fascinating era in American History.

Photo by Carleton Thomas Anderson

Photo by Carleton Thomas Anderson

Arts

VIVIAN MAIER: ON THE STREET

University of Kentucky Art Museum

Through July 26

A Review for Under Main

First and foremost, there is the work. The photographs of Vivian Maier on exhibit at the University of Kentucky Art Museum are immediately arresting, thanks to her eye for formal composition. They are compelling, because of the crazy quilt mix of people depicted in the 1950s U.S. metropolis. And they are charming, owing to an arch sense of humor and an abiding affection for women and children. Seeing this small but insightful show leads one to a greater appreciation for the unconventional and ultimately unknowable woman we see peering out at us from deep inside her own obsession.

But the afterimages that linger beyond the viewing are as much about the backstory, or the Vivian Maier Mystery (as a BBC documentary calls it), as they are about the images. If you spend a couple of hours on the internet in Vivian Maier Land, it’s easy to see there’s trouble ahead and trouble behind. Nanny Strangest! cries a Wall Street Journal headline. The Greatest Street Photographer You Never Heard Of, says Mother Jones. Legal Battle Over Vivian Maier’s Work, reports the NY Times. In the six years since her death, there have been two films made about her, and five books of her photographs have been published, all thanks to a few collectors and dealers who found her work in dispersal sales and have been promoting it ever since. There are, of course, lawyers arguing over who should get the proceeds, competing genealogical researchers have identified different French heirs, and late word has it that a long lost brother, Charles, has turned up and been awarded the rights to the photographs by the Cook County (IL) Probate Court, which wants its own cut of the action.

Meanwhile, Vivian Maier’s life has been scrutinized and called into question. Because she made 150,000 negatives over four decades, showing them to no one, stashing them in storage units, only to lose them when she couldn’t pay the rent, she is now assumed to have been “a private, unhappy person” who left us with “the riddle of her sad life” (WSJ). It is reported that she wore men’s clothes and boots, and that some of the kids she nannied nicknamed her “Bird Lady.” Some of them loved her, to the point of taking care of her late in life, and others say she was cruel and abusive and speculated that perhaps she had been abused as a child. One person who knew her says she might have been in the autistic spectrum. The fact that she hoarded newspapers and other items along with her negatives, and that she became more temperamental with age led one writer to surmise that Maier’s behavior was symptomatic of “a haunted, morbid psychology.” But a piece in The New Yorker cautions that neither was she a Mary Poppins, nor a surrogate Mommie Dearest. “To suggest her choices were the result of some as yet uncovered emotional trauma is to assume that her life was lived in reaction to pain.” Poor woman–she didn’t ask for this dissection of her psyche. She has been made into a public figure, without her permission.

Vivian Maier was a spy in the house of love. With her French accent and German camera, she was a kind of foreign correspondent, disguised as an au pair, who amassed a voluminous dossier on urban American life, and then filed it away, her obsession satisfied with the acquisition and collection of images—and not with the dissemination of them. Perhaps she found her joy in seeing the world through the camera and making the exposure. When an image comes into focus on the ground glass, the world is seen anew. To look through a cameral is an adventure, and a form of play. When the shutter is tripped, a photographer feels that anything can happen. Vivian Maier’s twin-lens Rolleiflex was her passport into other peoples’ lives. It gave her the access she craved, but at the same time kept her at some remove—the strategy of a consummate observer.

Among the things she took pleasure in observing were reflections of herself. One of the self-portraits in this exhibit reveals a rare glimpse of her enjoying the chase. In it a worker lifts a mirror out of a truck, seemingly unaware that there is a woman in the mirror taking a picture. For 125th of a second, a smile plays across her face. That’s the woman that three of her former charges spoke of when they wrote this death notice for the Chicago Tribune: Vivian Maier, proud native of France and Chicago resident for 50 years, died peacefully on Monday [April 23, 2009]. Second mother to John, Lane and Matthew. A free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all that knew her. Always ready to give her advice, opinion or a helping hand. Movie critic and photographer extraordinaire. A truly special person who will be sorely missed but whose long and wonderful life we all celebrate and will always remember.

As for the industry that has grown up around her work, it has endowed a Vivian Maier Scholarship to allow emerging female photographers to attend the prestigious School of the Art Institute. And without those collectors and gallerists—in the case of this exhibit, John Maloof and the Daniel Greenberg Gallery–no one would have ever heard of Vivian Maier in the first place. Are we to canonize her and place her in the pantheon of photographic heroines of the 20th century? Lord knows she may have suffered enough. Imagine what she went through when her archive was sold out from under her. But is she to be mentioned in the same breath with Helen Levitt, Margaret Bourke-White, Diane Arbus, Lisette Model, Ruth Orkin, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post-Wolcott, Imogene Cunningham, Bernice Abbott, Laura Gilpin, Evon Streetman, Francesca Woodman, Carrie Mae Weems, Mary Ellen Mark, Linda Connor, Annie Leibovitz, Lorna Simpson, Susan Meiselas, Donna Ferrato, Deborah Luster, Debbie Fleming Caffery and Sally Mann? Perhaps. We have seen only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to prints from Vivian Maier’s thousands of negatives. Hundreds of rolls remain undeveloped. When the legal wrangling is all said and done, we can expect that more of her work will be brought to light.

Other Streets: Photographs from the Collection

Speaking of wanting to see more, the UK Art Museum has put up an excellent selection of street photography from its collection to help place Maier’s work in a broader context. As you leave the thoughtfully-sequenced Maier exhibit, take a right and you will find prints by Magnum great Bruce Davidson. Take a second right down the next hallway and you’ll see images by Lexington Camera Club members Van Deren Coke, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Robert C. May—early documentary work from the 1950s. Several of Garry Winogrand’s “Women Are Beautiful” photographs are on the opposite wall.

Together, the two exhibits remind us of the important role the UK Art Museum has played in the regional photographic community, especially over the past 18 years, since Bob May’s bequest begat the excellent lecture series that bears his name, and funds were earmarked for exhibits and the purchase of prints. The museum has expanded its collection and made photography a point of emphasis in its programming. We can thank Bob, and the museum staff for that.

Arts

Uncanny Nanny: The Intrigue of Vivian Maier

Six years after their public introduction, Vivian Maier’s photographs still exude mystery and prompt intrigue. Working as a nanny in Chicago during the fifties and sixties, Maier documented her surroundings — and often herself — but ironically we know little about her life. Vivian Maier: On the Street at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky presents a monographic exhibition of thirty black and white photographs, including abstract self portraits and intimate glimpses into the lives of both Chicago’s working class and elite aristocrats.The scope of the exhibition provides a perspective of Maier’s surroundings, while at the same time offering viewers a deeper connection with the photographer and her Rolleiflex camera.

However socially and aesthetically infatuating, the legal underpinnings of Maier’s photographs remain overarching. In 2007, two years before her death, her negatives were auctioned off along with the rest of the contents of her storage unit as the result of nonpayment. Since then, her work has been reproduced, edited, and resold to private galleries and collectors. An onslaught of intellectual property debates and ethical questions still permeate Chicago courtrooms. In sum, Maier’s oeuvre has been posthumously constructed and aggrandized by those with a market share in her life and work.

While this aspect of Maier’s entrance into the mainstream is a basis for contention (but not entirely unique — this happens all too frequently in the art world), I think there is more at play in our vehement attraction to her photographs than just market controversy. Perhaps this is why On The Street resists a dialogue about ethics and legalities. Although the entrance wall text states that the selected photographs are pulled from the John Maloof Collection (Maloof is just one of the original purchasers of Maier’s defunct storage unit), no details are provided about the legalities of his purchase. Instead, the viewer is presented with another concern: the entrance of unknown “artists of consequence” into the canon of art history.

The works chosen for display for On the Street provide viewers with a multi-faceted view of city life through the lens of Maier’s camera. Each image seems at once familiar and uncanny — we can recognize the ebb and flow of city life, but only though Maier’s abstract angles and intense shadows. While some of Maier’s subjects are aware of their subjectiveness, others are oblivious — they are presented as anonymous, fragmented bodies. Ubiquitous shadows seem to be subjects themselves: Maier frequently makes them the focus of her self portraits. Indeed, there is something dream-like about Maier’s use of light and line, shadow and shape — her Surrealist predecessors applied many of the same techniques to their own photography.

Although the exhibition of thirty photographs seems small in comparison to the number of negatives available from the Maloof Collection, the time required to absorb Maier’s work is proportionate. Each photograph is remarkably detailed — and one journey through On the Street is not enough to fully immerse oneself in Maier’s world. The exhibition is comprised of single images and groupings of two and four photographs: children, city streets, women, transportation, and leisure, to name a few. Contextualizing these selected photographs provides a comprehensive survey of her subject matter, allowing viewers to connect her daily activities with the people and places she chose to capture on film.

On the Street is located in the back corner of the museum, which seems an odd fit for Maier’s work — the exhibition almost suffocates in its compact space. The intensity of Maier’s photography needs a precise “breathability,” something the back gallery ultimately lacks. Perhaps in attempt to mediate the small space, each photograph is surrounded with a large white mat and delicate silver frame. While this gesture helps aerate the body of work, the lack of space remains a dominant issue.

An observer of the everyday, Maier was able to capture the humanism and humor of daily life. This is evident through On the Street, which treats her work as both a time capsule and an autobiography. It succeeds by presenting her photographs as documents of a time passed, but also through examining the photographer’s importance and artistic resonance. While viewers are asked to question Maier’s undoubtable skill in relation to formally trained photographers of her time, I wish to offer a thematic addendum: should we ignore the fact she may not have wanted her life and work displayed publicly? Who truly owns Maier’s work — and should we be content with others profiting from her anonymity?