I purchased my first digital camera as a little attachment to my Palm Pilot. Ben and I had purchased a second hand computer to share and I later acquired the PP as a place to have a private thoughts or what not. I remember I did learn how to write the PP shorthand and as a very precursor to the iphone I was able to read the very abbreviated NYTimes on the subway to and from work.
Sadly, the camera was not supported after one brief software upgrade and lived a very short season in my life. It was so much fun to take it everywhere, even if the output was an insanely low res jpeg that now looks like a postage stamp. Also I must comment on the distortion factor. At first the distorted effects were quite fun, but after awhile I really just wanted to document what I was seeing.
Before this I think I spent a lot of money on those disposable cameras, and one silly purchase of a very mini Polaroid. Oh the sadness of using that on our trip to Spain, miniature photos that are now a faded and gummed up mess.
I was so pleased last week that I made the effort to see the Vivian Maier exhibit at Photo Center NW. The show contains gelatin silver prints that that can be found in the recently published book Vivian Maier Out of the Shadows. The evening also included a talk by the two authors of the book.
I am hardly the only one who has been so taken by the recent discovery of the 100,000 plus negatives found when her abandoned storage units were auctioned off. What surprised me was learning there are two sets of negatives currently being archived by two separate parties. A very curious circumstance, with dueling projects, dueling web/sites.
The Maier photos that first become known to the public are almost Arbus-like street photos. These are the images that drew me into the story, but I’ve come to like the quiet self portraits that are randomly sprinkled among her contact sheets. The two authors of this book (Richard Cahan and Michael Williams) placed an emphasis on perceiving the work as her private diary.
Maier was an extraordinarily private person and a bit of an odd duck. Cahan and Williams write in Out of the Shadows:
Maier had few friends and was known to be difficult and temperamental. Yet her photography shows an exceptional ability to relate and connect with people. It was a very short connection — a sixtieth of a second — but in that sliver of time Maier and her camera did something remarkable. They seemed to unmask people, to see beyond the surface of their skin. Her ability to get close to her subjects is what makes her pictures so irresistible. She’s not gawking, or judging, or creating caricatures. Her subjects — the men, women, and children who hardly noticed her- were often deep in thought. They seem isolated or perhaps lonely.
As everyone in the audience has pondered, what is it about her work that resonates so much? Ira Glass of This American Life did a recent live segment on just that question. You have to wait until Segment 5, but then Glass delivers a thoughtful valentine to Maier and her photographs. He focuses on the images she took of her nanny charges and includes interviews with a woman who Vivian cared for who had never seen the documentation of her childhood by her caretaker.