Vivian Maier: Street Photographer

Happy 2013 everyone! My year has started off very busy, hence the lack of posts, but I hope to get back on the wagon as I have lots of fun new things to share. I'm going to start by sharing the work of photographer Vivian Maier, whose work I was introduced to through a lovely book given to me for Christmas called Vivian Maier: Street photographer by John Maloof.

Maloof stumbled across hundreds of thousands of negatives of Maier's in 2007, which she had apparently "kept secret  for over fifty years". A nanny by trade, she lived in big cities and documented city life, but never showed the images to anyone.  In the past couple of years, though, Vivian's work has become something of a sensation due to the quality of the work, the period it is documenting (primarily 1950s and '60s America), and the incredible number of images. It seems both impossible and romantic that this woman who was not trained as an artist nor a photographer should have such amazing work and also have kept it all to herself.

  Self-portrait  of the artist

You can read more about her story at the links above (or wait for the film Finding Vivian Maier), but I just want to comment on what I find inspiring about her work. First, it appears she was making art for art's sake - not for shows or fame or anything like that. And because she was taking photos only for herself, she seems to have the freedom to choose whatever subject matter she wants and in doing so manages to capture some really intimate and fascinating subjects. For example, she has this picture of a dead horse left in the street. Part of my fascination with this gruesome scene is that it gives a window, albeit a black and white one, into the streets of post-war America, when horses were still commonly used as transportation even in big cities. But I also think the photo says something about the artist (for trained or not, the quality of her photographs confirm that she had both an artist's eye and artistic talent), about the types of things she felt worth documenting. In a way many of her photos of every day occurrences remind me of Norman Rockwell illustrations, but often grittier and less optimistic.

I also really like that even though many of her photos have people in them, none of them are posing. They often seem unaware of her presence -- which is somewhat odd to me considering that cameras were much bigger and more rare than they are today -- except for this lady below, who has such an awesome expression of disgust.

Another reason I identify with her work is that Vivian was a professional nanny, and from my brief stint as a nanny I know that it can be quite a lonely profession with a lot of down time, especially if the child is young. During that time it is easy to get bored, but Vivian seems to have used whatever moments she had to take hundreds of photos of the big cities (New York and Chicago) in which she lived. I wonder if she ever shared her photos with the children in her care?

Lastly, while most of the photos have a person or an animal as the subject, I, of course, love the photos with interesting framing of architecture. I don't know what Vivian felt when she framed this shot, but amidst the interesting shapes and overlapping lines I see the buildings as a stand-in for people or relationships that appear so strong yet can crumble and leave a giant hole. Of course I'm reading into the psyche of someone we will never know, and perhaps that is the thing that strikes me most about Vivian Maier's photographs: that they make me want to have a conversation with them and create a connection with the woman behind the camera.

 

Behind-the-scenes of Jordan Matter's Dancers Among Us

I shared some images from photographer Jordan Matter's "Dancers Among Us" series a couple of months ago.  Now check out this behind-the-scenes live action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgWfYisRr20

I won't lie, I am really taken with this work.  I think it's an incredibly successful merging of concept with artistic execution.  And I don't think I will ever get tired of looking at his new combinations of amazing dancers in often humorous "skits".  It reminds me that life is beautiful and humans are amazing.  Matter has just released the book version, also titled Dancers Among Us, which includes the story behind capturing each image.  I, for one, am excited to get my copy!

(I'm not sure if the embedded video is working properly, so here's the link to the video too)

Art of the Art Assignment

I highly recommend Draw it with your eyes closed: the art of the art assignment (published by Paper Monument) to all art educators. It's an hilarious account of the favorite/best assignments given to, or by, artists and art professors around the country.  These are mostly assignments in higher education, where the trick is to give students open-ended assignments with enough room for personal expression and imagination, while still having them learn something.  The embarrassing, kookie and sometimes inappropriate results had me laughing out loud (in public, no less) with the creative interpretations of students, some of which go very, very bad, along with the usual "happy accidents".  Inevitably, sometimes it's actually the teacher who ends up learning a lesson (eg. "never give that assignment again", or "only use that with grad students").  Covering all mediums, the book offers many fun, conceptual and useful assignments to take inspiration from as an art educator.

I got to thinking about the best assignments that I have received from my instructors over the years, and I've paired it down to three:

1) My high school art teacher gave us an assignment where we had to go out on the town over the weekend and find all the stores that might have useful (non-traditional) art supplies.

I lived in Hanoi, Vietnam at the time where I attended an international school and took the International Baccalaureate Visual Art 2-year course.  This meant that not only did I have to document all of my findings in great detail for my teacher, but I first had to overcome the language barrier and navigate the bustling and winding streets of the old quarter on my mission. While at the time it was terrifying, it has become one of the most useful lessons I learned in high school because (a) I built the confidence to just go out and find stuff in an unfamiliar place, a skill that has served me well over the years, and (b) my idea of what art supplies should be and where you should get them was shaken and replaced with a more imaginative take on the whole thing.

 

2) One of my college professors, Craig Nagasawa, made me limit my palette to 6 colors plus white for a whole semester. The result was so successful that I didn't add any new colors until 2 semesters later. The purpose of this limitation was for me to stop being overwhelmed by the amazing array of color offered in oil paints today, and to really learn how to mix color and figure out how to make the colors that I needed.  I now teach a class on color and whenever I see my students -- especially the color enthusiasts like myself -- come in with a box full of paints, I turn around and give them the same advice: limit your palette until you understand color better.

3) In my 2nd year as an art major, I  took a class with Kara Maria, a visiting lecturer, and her assignment for the semester was: make ugly paintings.  This seemed quite shocking to us fairly new painters/budding artistes, but her assertion was that in our naive pursuit of perfection our paintings became dull.  By being given permission to make "bad" paintings, we were suddenly freed of our self-enforced restrictions and became bolder, more willing to experiment, and less afraid of "mistakes".  My paintings definitely improved as a result of this simple idea, which I not only employ on my own students but I also have to remind myself of whenever I feel like my work is getting stuck.