A STREET PHOTOGRAPHER

Bangkok, 21 December, 2014

Her name was Vivian Maier. She died not long ago, in 2009, at the age of 83, a spinster and childless, and penniless. She had spent some forty years, from the mid-1950s on, being a nanny for various well-off families in the Chicago area.

And she was a gifted photographer of the streets, mainly those of Chicago and New York.

She spent every possible minute that she could taking photos: in all her free time, but also when she was taking her charges for walks or to the playgrounds, as well as on her one big trip around the world, which she made in the early sixties. She took hundreds of thousands of photos. But hardly any of these made it past the stage of negatives, and many didn’t even get that far; they just stayed as rolls of unprocessed film.

She was a compulsive hoarder. She kept all the negatives and all the film rolls, and the 8 mm films she made, and the audio tapes she recorded, and just about everything else she had ever owned or collected, in cardboard boxes, old suitcases, and other containers. As she moved from one nannying job to another, she offloaded her accumulating stuff into a commercial storage space. In 2007, after she failed to keep up with her payments, the storage company auctioned her stuff off.

It looked like her work was about to disappear. But a number of photo collectors bought at the auction. They recognized a spark of genius in her photos and started trying to publicize them. A first attempt by Ron Slattery in 2008, who posted some of her photos on the internet, failed to generate much interest. Then in October 2009, six months after she died, another of the collectors, John Maloof, put some of his trove of her photos on Flickr, linked them to his blog, and the results went viral (this is a very modern story). Things snowballed from there, and her work is now beginning to garner a fair amount of critical and popular praise.

Would Vivian Maier have wanted this recognition? That is one of the questions touched upon in a fascinating documentary which John Maloof put together entitled “Finding Vivian Maier”. He tells the story of how after his initial purchase of her stuff he went on a voyage of discovery of who she was and what she did – quite a detective story – and he interviews a number of the children she nannied and their parents to try to understand what kind of person she was. It was seeing this film that moved me to write this post. I highly recommend my readers to see it if they have not done so already. And, by the way, according to the people who had known her, the answer to the question with which I started this paragraph is, probably yes for her work, but she would have intensely disliked to have the light of publicity shone on her; she was a very private person.

For those readers who want to get a taste of her work, I suggest you visit the site http://www.vivianmaier.com. I add here, from that same site, some of her photos which most struck me, to whet your appetite.
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I prefer her black-and-white photos, but I add a few of her colour photos
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That last one, with her shadow, leads naturally to a few of her self-portraits. She took a lot of photos of herself.
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In a sad postscriptum, I have just read that Vivian Maier’s estate has got entangled in a challenge about who owns the copyright to her photos. The result is that it will be probably harder to see her works for the next several years. If my readers get a chance to see an exhibition, on no account miss it. It might be a long time before you get another chance.

 

ME, I TOOK THE TRAIN TO GO TO NEW JERSEY

New York, 11 January 2014

I’ve been reading about the political storm whirling around New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie and his possible role in the partial closure back in September of several lanes of the George Washington Bridge causing mammoth traffic jams, all as a mean-minded act of revenge against a mayor who chose not to back him.

George Washington Bridge traffic jam

As I read and watch the TV commentaries, I smugly remind myself of the fact that 25 years ago, when I lived in New York and for a period had to travel frequently to Trenton, I did NOT drive and so was never at the mercy of tyrannical politicians and their staff. I took the train (the golden haze of history makes me forget that the trains sometimes ran chaotically).

I would catch the train at Penn Station, as miserable then as it is now (although I read somewhere that they might tear it down and replace it with something nicer … hope springs eternal).

Penn Station

But at that time, there was an employee of the railways, announcer of departing trains, who would always end his litany of stops on these trains with a sonorously chanted “All abooo-aard!” He started high on the “All”, dropped to low note on “aboo”, and then rose to triumphant high finale on “aard”. It always put a smile on my lips and sent me off with the sun in my heart.

I needed it. After lurching through the tunnel under the Hudson River, we would emerge, blinking, in New Jersey on the other side. There then followed an urban and peri-urban bleakness. After passing through Hoboken and Secaucus, we crossed wastelands of what must have once been lovely marshes and wetlands around the Hackensack and Passaic rivers, as this small remaining wetland near Secaucus attests

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but were now a tangle of roads and studded with industrial estates

roads through the wetlands

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many of them abandoned, evidence of the collapse of the manufacturing sector in the US.

old industrial site passaic river

I redid this journey recently, taking the train to Washington DC, and it hasn’t got much better.

Every time I sat in that train 25 years ago, watching the bleakness roll by, I silently lamented that way of thinking which saw wetlands as something useless. Here is what a journalist had to say when describing the Meadowlands in 1867:

“Swamp-lands are blurs upon the fair face of Nature; they are fever-breeding places; scourges of humanity; which, instead of yielding the fruits of the earth and adding wealth to the general community, only supply the neighboring places poisonous exhalations and torturing mosquitos. They are, for all practical purposes, worthless; and the imperative necessity for their reclamation is obvious to all, and is universally conceded.” [1]

So they had filled them in and turned them over to some useful economic activity. But now all I could see was that much of that useful economic activity had upped sticks and moved to China or somewhere else, leaving behind only a blighted landscape. And no doubt as I write, that useful economic activity is upping sticks again, moving to somewhere even cheaper, leaving another blighted landscape behind it.

What of those wetlands around the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers? Perhaps sea level rise, coupled with more frequent and more severe storms, both caused by climate change, itself caused by the carbon emissions from all those useful economic activities, will wipe away all our intrusions and chase us off to higher ground. A revenge which will dwarf Governor Christie’s mean-spirited attempt at revenge – if indeed he was involved, of course. Of course …

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1. The new system of reclaiming lands. (1867, November 16). Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, pp. 36–37.

Traffic jam on George Washington Bridge: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/dam/assets/140109121541-vo-gwb-traffic-september-2013-00000427-story-top.jpg [in http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/09/us/christie-traffic-react/%5D
Penn Station: http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2012/02/12/arts/12JPWEST2/12JPWEST2-popup.jpg [in http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/arts/design/a-proposal-for-penn-station-and-madison-square-garden.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0%5D
Wetlands Secaucus: http://www.njmeadowlands.gov/images/environment/mill_air.gif [in http://www.njmeadowlands.gov/environment/parks/mcm.html%5D
Roads through the wetlands: http://www.clui.org/sites/default/files/imagecache/clui-image/clui/post_images/135-3516_img_0.jpg [in http://www.clui.org/newsletter/winter-2013/new-jersey-meadowlands%5D
Pulaski Skyway: http://media.nj.com/jjournal-news/photo/ga0111skyway-11-munsonjpg-f015d680e2f7d239.jpg [in http://www.nj.com/hudson/voices/index.ssf/2013/02/sen_stacks_letter_praises_gov.html%5D
Old industrial site Passaic River: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4062/4488489938_631d825d01_z.jpg [in http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffs4653/4488489938/%5D

A CELEBRATION OF THE HUMAN FACE

Beijing, 25 May 2013

Many, many (many…) years ago, as a fresh-faced engineering undergraduate, I was introduced to the concept of the Random Walk. My memory is hazy now, but as I recall it had something to do with a way of modelling the behaviour of molecules in a gas. The idea was that molecules could be considered as little ping pong balls taking random paths as they whizzed around colliding with each other chaotically.

If I bring this up, it is because during the visit which my wife and I made two weeks ago to the Metropolitan Museum in New York I rather felt that we had unwittingly gone on a random walk of our own. I should explain that whenever we are in New York we always try to slip in a visit to the Met. It is really the most wonderful museum, with an amazingly extensive collection. We normally just go along and wander around in a rather purposeless way, but this time I decided to be slightly more ordered about it. I checked on the museum’s web site to see what exhibitions were on and drew up a list of those which sounded interesting. My list included, in no particular order, “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity”, “The Roof Garden Commission: Imran Qureshi”, “PUNK: Chaos to Couture”, “Photography and the American Civil War”, “African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde”, “Street”, “Cambodian Rattan: The Sculptures of Sopheap Pich”, “Objects from the Kharga Oasis”, “Plain or Fancy? Restraint and Exuberance in the Decorative Arts”. A rich diversity, I think you will agree. Once arrived, we decided to visit these various exhibitions as the fancy took us, interspersed by two visits to the cafeteria. The result was that we criss-crossed the museum quite randomly, finding ourselves walking unwittingly through many different parts of the permanent collections and bumping into admirable pieces along the way.

So it was that at one moment early on in our random walk we found ourselves in the Cypriot Antiquities section – not a section I would normally have ever thought of visiting. And there, I suddenly found myself nose to nose with this statue.

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He was someone from the 4th Century BC, I learned from the label, but my immediate thought was “Good Lord, it could be one of my children’s friends”, and suddenly the 24 centuries which separated us disappeared. This was no longer a piece of art to be studied respectfully but someone I could have known and passed the time of day with. In some muddled way, I decided there and then that as we walked the various corridors of the museum, I would take photos of some of the more interesting faces we came across, as a testimony to all that humanity lying just below the surface of paint and wood and stone and paper that surrounded us. Here is my resulting photo album, shown in the random order that I came across them:

A ruler from the area of Iran, 4o centuries ago. This one gave me goose-bumps because I have a copy of it buried in my warehoused stuff in Vienna.

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A governor, by the name of Gudea, of the city of Lagash in Mesopotamia (I like the way he holds his hands):

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Our random walk is bringing us into East Asia.

A bodhisattva from Shanxi province. A mere 15 centuries separate us. Is it unfair to say that he looks rather self-satisfied?

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We jump forward 15 centuries, give or take, with this timid Korean scholar from the early 20th century:

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A female horse rider, from the western reaches of the Tang Empire I would guess from her clothes, and very tired after a long journey I would think from the expression on her face.  13 centuries separate us.

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A buddha from the area of Afghanistan when it was still buddhist, 15 centuries ago. Are we seeing the Greek influence which came from this area being conquered by Alexander the Great?

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Those cupid lips! A bodhisattva from Shanxi province, 14 centuries back.

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Our random walk is making us transition brutally to Medieval Europe.

A brooding Virgin Mary from 10 centuries ago.

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A stern-looking saint (Saint Yrieix … who is that?), a face from 10 centuries ago.

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A mourning Virgin Mary at the crucifixion from 6 centuries ago

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Her mourning is German, sober and contained. This Virgin’s mourning, from the same period, is more Mediterranean. She is Spanish.

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A rather foolish-looking bishop from 6 centuries ago.

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The random walk is now taking us through the print and photo section.

A woman from the 1890s.

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A woman from the 1930s. It’s a Pollock, which is intriguing.

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Another woman from the 1930s, on the Paris boulevards.

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We are suddenly back in the Cypriot section, although in a different room.

A man with a wonderful beard, from 27 centuries ago.

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A woman staring death in the face, from a little later.

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And now our random walk is bringing us to meso-America.

A pensive face from Mexico, 14 centuries ago.

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An anguished face from 30 centuries ago, from Mexico again.

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Suddenly, we lurch into Africa.

A West African woman, from a century ago.

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A South African woman from just a few decades ago.

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And finally as we are making for the exit, a small face on a German jug of the 16th Century catches my eye and camera.

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Pictures: all mine

A SYMPHONY OF WHITE

Beijing, 16 May 2013

My wife and I are in the US at the moment for our son’s graduation. We were down in Philadelphia over the weekend, together with our daughter, proudly present at the Great Moment.

graduation caps thrown in air

My wife and I had visited Philadelphia some 30 years ago, together with my mother-in-law, on our before-the-marriage honeymoon (I have referred to this in an earlier post). But we didn’t remember much, so we decided to go and visit the old part of town again.

It was all very pretty and peaceful; the streets in the old part of Philadelphia are really very pleasant to stroll along. As we walked, we came across some white roses planted along the pavement, separating it from a parking lot. These were not the sculpted creations one finds in carefully tended gardens but were more the blowsy type found on wild bushes.

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And they smelled heavenly!

A little later, when we arrived at the visitors’ centre, we stumbled into a magnificent trellis of white wisteria.

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I decided there and then to spend the rest of our visit to the US photographing all the white flowers we would come across, first in Philadelphia and then in New York where we would be staying a few extra days with our daughter. Here is the album of what we found:

White rhododendron in the courtyard of the museum at the University of Pennsylvania

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A white-flowered tree along a street in Philadelphia

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Another white-flowered tree on the lower east side of New York

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Some laggard narcissi on the upper east side

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A smorgasbord of white in Central Park, starting with white tulips

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then white pansies

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then three flowers whose names I don’t know

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a white chestnut at the exit of the park

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white irises around a statue of the Virgin Mary on the corner of a church not too far from the park.

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white daisies of some sort on the High Line (the last time we were here was the dead season)

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and finally white dieffenbachia, seen just before catching the shuttle to Newark airport

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graduation caps in air: http://www.plantijn.be/images/plantijn2/container1103/images/iStock_000004407014.jpg

other pictures: mine

LA MICHELINE CHUGGING ACROSS THE COUNTRYSIDE

New York, 2 January 2013

Down at the end of my French grandmother’s property ran a little train, the Micheline we called it. It was a rinky-dink train, one carriage (on rare occasions two), which chugged along at a venerable speed across the countryside from one market town to another, winding its way through vineyards and meadows, stopping at toy-town stations where stationmasters with moustaches, who smoked filterless gauloises and no doubt drank un petit rouge corsé in evenings, would agitate green flags and blow shrill whistles to let the Micheline continue on. This photo captures the rural idyll nicely.

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I used to accompany my grandmother on her visits to town. We would walk down a long alley flanked first by peach and apple trees and then by black locusts, down to the end of the property where there was a big iron gate, which swung ponderously open; from there, it was a short five-minute walk to the station. In came the Micheline

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I would help my grandmother in, the stationmaster would agitate his flag and blow his whistle, and off we went.

My mother used to tell me that during the Second World War, people were sent to my grandmother by the French Resistance for her to hide for a while; they would quietly slip in with the Micheline. My memory is instead of two old ladies, two sisters, Tante Chlothilde and Tante Marcelle, coming to visit via the train. They were first cousins to my grandmother. Both of them being widows, they always wore black. We would first see the Micheline chug by, then some ten minutes later two black silhouettes would be sighted slowly walking up the long alley. My grandmother would then walk down to greet them, speaking very loudly because one of the sisters was as deaf as a post.

Well, things changed. The road network got better, buses took over, and the line was finally closed down. I suppose the Michelines were retired like this one was

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The rails were pulled up, and the weeds took over.

After a long period of neglect, the municipalities got their collective acts together and turned the railway line into a “Green Way”, for people to walk and cycle along. So now we have a quiet, carless, path that allows us to enjoy some of the most beautiful countryside on Earth (I admit, I’m biased).

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All of this came back to me yesterday while my wife and I strolled along the High Line in Manhattan. We are talking of a very different context – urban rather than rural, large-scale rather than small-scale – but the historical trajectory is the same: a rail line that was once a vital artery of the city

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falls victim to roads and trucks and is finally abandoned. It becomes derelict, overgrown by weeds

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and is threatened with demolition. But good sense eventually prevails and the elevated line is turned into an elevated garden.

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Magic.

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Micheline-1: http://www.google.fr/imgres?q=micheline+train&num=10&hl=fr&tbo=d&biw=1280&bih=683&tbm=isch&tbnid=QbpsYHDZWoAGgM:&imgrefurl=http://www.worldofstock.com/stock-photos/france-ardeche-mirabel-village-surroundings-local-micheline/TRT1500&docid=307ZNJAoHh-JTM&imgurl=http://www.worldofstock.com/slides/TRT1500.jpg&w=500&h=332&ei=hIXjUMDvFuXQ0wGh84HQCg&zoom=1&iact=rc&dur=684&sig=113446295457090783361&page=1&tbnh=140&tbnw=202&start=0&ndsp=22&ved=1t:429,r:10,s:0,i:118&tx=96&ty=67

Micheline-2: http://c1.img.v4.skyrock.net/1729/16641729/pics/3080416001_1_3_WEG0CElV.jpg

Micheline-3: Micheline-3: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-C8L1231bJ-o/TbhQHR6dc_I/AAAAAAAAEAQ/FvpTQts0R0I/s1600/micheline01-1.jpg

Green Way-1: http://www.sortiramacon.com/media/news/voie-verte-velo.jpg

Green Way-2: http://www.velo-ravel.net/2009/2009-08-17_Bourgogne_sud_files/image020.jpg

High line 1-historical: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-X8IIsMIF7GY/TmlooRzMZ9I/AAAAAAAAF9M/_PpGNN3xJEU/s400/Highline_train.jpg

High line 2-historical: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-0FEWcWopww8/TmlooMh8vlI/AAAAAAAAF9E/SuXL4wcu6To/s400/HIghline_historical.jpg

High line derelict: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-iD76YXAA-Uw/TffNNuz4gXI/AAAAAAAAAYU/KWHnUGbYjPU/s1600/High+Line+2.jpg

High line 1: http://www.asla.org/sustainablelandscapes/images/highline/Highline_6.jpg

High line 2: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-usnFjgnfQc4/TffNIgAV6xI/AAAAAAAAAYQ/XMQA0bZJAb4/s1600/High+Line.jpg

High line 3: http://www3.pictures.gi.zimbio.com/New+York+New+High+Line+Park+Opens+Public+3B45D1SYEJcl.jpg

High line 4: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-WbybGegkYX0/Tmlon5yO-1I/AAAAAAAAF88/LyBQFC8kMpo/s1600/Highline_above.jpg