Thursday, June 1, 2017

VIVIAN MAIER – STREET PHOTOGRAPHER

                                    
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“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and spread its fragrance on the desert air,” wrote the poet Gray. If a young man named John Maloof had not discovered the wealth of photographs taken by Vivian Maier, the world would have never known of the street photographer who called herself ‘a sort of spy.’
            Vivian was born in France on February 1st, 1926. She was of mixed descent with a French mother and an Austrian father, who abandoned his family when she was a child. A portrait photographer named Jeanne Bertrand befriended her mother. Perhaps Vivian’s interest in photography was nurtured by this lady.
            In her youth, Vivian shuttled between France and USA until in 1951, she settled down in New York. She was an intensely private person, eccentric but intelligent, and cared nothing for what people thought about her. Shabbily dressed in a long loose dress with a baggy woollen overcoat, solid boots and floppy hat, she never stepped into the street without her camera dangling from her neck. Her first camera was a simple box camera. Objects and people on the streets fascinated her.
            Vivian came to New York as nanny to a family who sailed to USA from Southampton. She continued to work for the family between 1951 and1956, and could now afford to buy a more sophisticated Leica IIIc, with which she could take coloured photographs. From photographing objects and landmarks, she now turned to capturing people in her films. She had a great affinity for the poor, their life styles, and their struggles. Whatever caught her eye she photographed and documented. She also developed an inexplicable urge to hoard things. Newspapers, garbage cans, discarded items on the roadside were collected and stored in boxes.
            In 1957, Vivian moved to Chicago where she again sought employment as a nanny to three children. They were here closest family. She was like a second mother to the children, fond of them but also very strict. When she took them outdoors, she was also busy photographing whatever caught her fancy. She had a small room to herself which doubled as a dark room to develop her pictures. She also had access to the attic in which she hoarded her collection of newspapers, clippings, film rolls and other knick knacks. The attic was always locked permitting no entry to the children.
            During her tenure as a nanny, she would make short trips to other parts of the country, Canada, South America, and some cities in Europe. She always travelled alone and indulged freely in her hobby of photography.
            By the early ‘70s the children had all grown up and needed no nanny. She moved from family to family in Chicago and nannied in this city for a total of seventeen years. But she could no more develop her rolls of film. They had to be put in boxes with all the other junk she had accumulated. In 1980, she stopped photographing, and her camera too went into storage.
            Vivian managed to live in a tiny studio apartment which was paid for by one of the families for whom she had worked. But when she could not pay the rent to the storage companies, one of her storage bins was auctioned without her knowledge, to cover the rent.
            In 2007, John Maloof a young man was writing a book about Chicago. He visited the local auction to see if he could get photographs or material for his book. Paying $400/- he bought one of her boxes which contained hundreds of negatives depicting scenes from Chicago. He became obsessed with Vivian’s work and started buying back stuff from other buyers who had attended the auction. He also acquired items from her other two boxes.
            Within a year, John had salvaged about 90% of her work. There were 100000 to 150000 negatives, 3000 prints, hundreds of rolls of film and audiotapes. She had methodically documented many of the photographs. Vivian Maier became John Maloof’s magnificent obsession.
            In 2008, Vivian skidded on ice and injured her head. She never recovered and died in a nursing home on April 21st, 2009.

            The first story about Vivian was published in 2009. Her life and works not only became Maloof’s passion but also contributed to his livelihood. The first exhibition of her work was in 2010. These were scans of all her negatives. Since then this exhibition has travelled all over USA, from Chicago to Los Angeles to New York. It has been exhibited in many European countries as well. So well archived, it has rekindled an interest in street photography and in the life and work of an extremely private woman who was a law unto herself.

Friday, January 6, 2017

MARIA BICKNELL – THE BABY MACHINE.

                                   

Maria Bicknell was the daughter of Charles Bicknell, a solicitor to the Prince Regent and the Admiralty. She lived with her parents in London, but would often visit her grandfather in Suffolk. He was Dr. Durand Rudde, the Rector of East Bergholt and also a very wealthy man.
Maria first met the impoverished landscape painter John Constable when she was twelve and he was twenty. They met again when she was a few years older, and love came unbidden into their hearts. But Constable was living on a measly allowance of 100 pounds a year from his father, which was scarcely enough for his own sustenance. They had to carry on their secret affair for seven long years, until the death of his father when he inherited sufficient amount of money to support a wife.
Their marriage was stoutly opposed by both families. Maria’s grandfather threatened to disown her, as Constable belonged to a lower social stratum. His father was not an intellectual but a trader, even though he owned a prosperous mill. Besides, Constable’s paintings did not bring in a regular income.
Though Constable was a landscape painter and an ardent exponent of naturalism, he occasionally undertook portrait painting because of financial necessity. Three months before their marriage, he painted a portrait of Maria. She was in London and Constable wrote from Suffolk, “I would not be without your portrait for all the world. The sight of it calms my spirit in all trouble.”
Their marriage took place in 1816, at the Church of St. Martin Fields in London. Neither family attended the wedding. But their steadfast love carried them through stiff opposition of their families and also through severe financial hardships. Charles Bicknell gave his daughter 50 pounds a year. But when her grandfather died, she received 4000 pounds as part of her inheritance.
Maria bore seven children in quick succession. She also had one miscarriage. Perhaps in those days the subject of contraception was taboo, and the young couple had no clue about Planned Parenthood.
Frequent child bearing took a toll on Maria’s health. She contracted tuberculosis and died at the age of 41, a few months after delivering her seventh child. On November 23rd, 1828, she was buried at St. John-at-Hampstead Churchyard in London.
On her death, Constable went into deep depression. He was unable to concentrate on his paintings. His clients were dissatisfied with his work and grumbled.
“I am intensely distressed and can hardly attend to anything,” he apologized.
To add to his loss, he was saddled with the responsibility of looking after seven children.
He wrote to his brother, “I do feel the loss of my angel. God only knows how my children will be brought up. She was a devoted, industrious, religious mother who was all affection. …….The face of the world has totally changed for me.”
            Their married life lasted for a mere twelve years. Frequent child bearing and tuberculosis had debilitated Maria. Death dealt the coup de grace.