Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The art of photography

Unfurling fern
On Sunday, I went to see a documentary at our local independent theater about Vivian Maier. She was an unknown street photographer who lived and worked in Chicago as a nanny and died in 2009 at the age of 83, penniless. She was a prolific photographer, but she never showed anybody her pictures. When she died, several storage lockers of her stuff were about to be destroyed, when John Maloof, a Chicago historian and collector, purchased them. Earlier, he had discovered a trunk filled with her photographs and hoped that the contents of the lockers would lead to some information about her.

The documentary tells the tale of the curious person that Vivian was. She is now internationally known as a talented street photographer, and exhibitions of her work are currently in high demand. I can see why: if you visit that link, you'll see some of the amazing pictures she took. There were also thousands upon thousands of undeveloped film canisters in those boxes, which are still being developed and archived.

I didn't actually realize, until I saw this documentary, that "street photography" is such an art form. I love to take pictures myself, looking for the perfect unfurling fern or landscape as I travel in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. I tend to add people to my pictures only for interest, but not to document them in the way that she did. And I'm learning that having a really good camera can make a huge difference in the quality of a picture. If I had one, I could have changed the depth of field for that fern picture and made it stand out against a fuzzy background. Some of my fellow bloggers, (The Smitten Image, for one) take such breathtaking pictures that I've recently become interested in photography in a new way.

I can feel a possible new passion burgeoning: photography. Not that I haven't always enjoyed taking pictures, but if I had just the right camera, why, who knows where it might lead? I'm interested in taking a peek down that garden path... and seeing if I can capture it perfectly.


  1. how interesting that she became a 'phenomenon' after her death. as for photography, i take photos all day long but know nothing of my camera. i, too, admire folks like hilary who command their cameras like an extension of themselves and their own eye.

  2. it sounds like she has a rather fascinating story...how interesting that she never shared her pictures until after her death....

  3. hilary can do some amazing things with the damera...it is def an art...

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this. I looked at her work and could have spent a very long time studying her photographs. She was a genius at what she did. Wow.

    I've always been interested in photography. I have a good camera and I am frustrated with myself for not learning how to use it. One of my goals is to take some lessons so I can learn more. I find that I see things differently through the lens of a camera.

  5. Fiddlehead ferns. Some people eat these.

    I will look for this documentary on PBS and online. I have read of her amazing story. Her photographs are truly works of art.

    Black and white photographs are powerful.

    I will check out The Smitten Image.

    I read your blog often but do not comment each time.

    Thank you.

  6. What an interesting story. I'll have to go check it out. I've been an avid amateur photographer for many years. It's a hobby I love. Hope you will love it too!

  7. I hope you do take on the photography challenge! It's great fun, and so many new things to learn (keeping those grey cells working). My advice - join a photography club or take a course, and try new things. I've learned so much in two years!

  8. Ah ha! This is what comes after sky diving!

  9. I'd love to see this documentary about this fascinating woman.
    As I considered getting a smart phone off & on over the past year, Mitch's biggest concern was that I would have a very nice, very expensive camera going unused while I use a phone camera.
    A month into having a smart phone, he's partially right. It's so fun to use! And it fits in my pocket, so I take photos of things when I wouldn't necessarily have my bulky camera available. But I still take the bulky camera to every baseball game, to take good quality & demand speed photos. And I can't wait for wildflowers to start popping up, I'll be out with my camera & lenses for sure. This past harsh winter & this slow brown spring haven't offered much photographic opportunity.
    I love photography, and have felt that I kind of plateaued & let my passion fizzle. I was never interested in portrait photography, but was pursued to do it, and it kind of turned me away. I'd like to start chasing my real photography dreams again.. I LOVE street photography. A few years ago, I attended a few festivals with a friend, to photograph interesting people doing interesting things was such an adventure. I too, have archives of thousands upon thousands of photos that haven't been seen outside our home.
    I think you'd be a natural - you compose wonderful shots with the cameras you have.. you would have a lot of fun with a settings - just the instant click of the shutter of a DSLR is so gratifying & fun.

  10. I went over to see her work and was blown away by the B/W photographs. Her street scenes are amazing. I will go back and read more later but from what I saw and read she was a very talented lady.

    DJan, did you notice her photos were taken with a simple Kodiak Brownie box camera? Not professional in any way. Some of the best photos I have ever seen were taken with inexpensive cameras.

  11. Fiddle-heads and fresh fish - a most delightful meal. You have to pick the head off the top just at the right time - we always had fiddle-heads in spring and Dad would always have a fresh shad to stuff and cook for supper. I can remember cleaning them and getting them ready for freezer. Wonderful taste. I shall check out this documentary DJan and have a wonderful day.

  12. Djan,
    You are right. The camera does make a difference, but it's also knowing how to frame a shot, capture just the right light, etc. Your photos are always beautiful, so obviously you understand what makes a good photograph and what makes a great one. The technical stuff can be learned. I am looking to upgrade my Lumix to a big-girl camera soon. Just want to make sure it's not a passing fancy.

    This lady has some amazing photos on her blog and offers wonderful advise to novice photographers. Check her out here. http://whatkarensees.blogspot.com/

  13. I enjoyed looking at all her powerful black and white shots over lunch today! Thanks!
    I certainly enjoy taking photographs and catching the light just right, for me light is all important.
    I like my Canon Rebel DSLR..it has an automatic setting:) I do step out of my comfort zone sometimes..practice practice! I think you would enjoy photography as a hobby...I could probably learn from you! :)

  14. The eye is as important as the camera. My sister and I can stand side by side with identical cameras looking at the same thing. My picture will be a throw away, hers will be suitable for framing.
    How sad that the woman is only gaining fame after her death. Seems the fate of too many artists.

  15. I just took the time to look at a few of her photos, but they are remarkable!
    I do love photography, but I have not studied it as an art of a science. I would really need to work at it to make have a really good camera worthwhile. I do have a 'good' camera and I like to use it here at home, but I do not like having to carry it around for long distances.

  16. I somehow became aware of Vivian Maier's photography shortly after her death and was (still am) in awe of her incredible ability to capture that snippet of street life. I have ever since, wanted to explore street photography but two things stood in my way. I felt very conspicuous snapping strangers (her camera allowed her to look down at her subjects.. not directly at them) and I moved to the country! She was a genius with film.

    Thank you so much for the mention sweet lady. You're too kind. If I recall correctly, you have a PowerShot (I forget the model but I think it was the same one I had before my DSLR), and if that's the case, you can indeed play with depth of field in the way that you mentioned, and create some nice bokeh backgrounds.

    Try shooting in shutter speed preferred mode and take several shots of the same image in good light. Depending on the situation you'll start to see the background fuzzy out (not a technical term!) or perhaps just darken - illuminating the foreground. Play around with that setting.

    You might prefer playing in aperture preferred mode instead. I've always felt more comfortable with the former but most everyone tends to stick with one or the other. The really great photographers work in full manual mode.

    Write to me anytime. If you think I can help further.

    Now I don't dare click over the the Maier link. I'll be lost in there for hours.

  17. A new creative venue for the consummate Sagittarian. You go, girl!

  18. This documentary is now in my save list!
    I love Hilary's photos on The Smitten Image! She is so talented. I have loved some of the pictures you have taken on your walks and hikes, too--from mountains to ferns to hoar frost. Go for it! :)

  19. My son keeps telling me I need to get a better camera and learn how to use it. Sigh. Your fern is so beautiful. I wonder if I could just manipulate a photo well enough to get the same effect of making the outside blurrier.


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