I was walking around Queens the other day with a camera for the first time in a few weeks and I started to think about all of Vivian Maier’s undeveloped rolls of film, which also brought to mind the stash Winogrand left when he died. What exactly happened to both of these photographers that made them seemingly not really care about viewing the results of their street work?
It’s nearly impossible to figure out the motivations of another person, so naturally much of this is just speculation. I began to wonder if both simply had some sort of satori moment with their photography, after which they simply found bliss in the act of photographing on the streets and weren’t really concerned with the resulting photographs.
Think about it. You work for years to hone a craft, spend hours wandering around the streets, and then simply leave it at that. You have no idea if what you’re doing is working, nor show a desire to take any sort of pleasure in reflecting on your own work. To just go out and do it with no concern about viewing the results takes incredible discipline.
In Maier’s case I’m starting to get the impression that she knew she was good and simply wasn’t interested sorting through all the results. I could see her chuckling to herself thinking about the poor fool who’d have to develop all her film (Sorry John!).
The Flow of Life
Or maybe it was something else. Street photographers tend to be a bit of strange breed, and spending hours myself out shooting I can say that part of the joy is simply being out in the flow of life. Many times the photographs really are just a bi-product of those long walks through the streets. For some, this maybe part of the reason that street photography seems random and unfocussed at times. Well, it is random and unfocussed at times, and I think that’s the way many street photographers prefer it.
It could also be that Maier and Winogrand reached an understanding about the abundance of opportunity that immersing yourself in the flow of life offers. They probably deeply understood that there were always more photographs to be made. They could go out into the street any day and make new work. There really was no rush or any need to view certain work as more important than any other. It all came from the same flow of life, which is constant, day after day, year after year.
I tried to think of other creative disciplines where artists never see the results of their efforts. What came to mind was improv. I studied long form improv for a few years and have been an admirer since. While not exactly like leaving rolls of film undeveloped for years, there are some correlations to improv I think. Essentially improvisers go out and perform each night, and once they’re done, they’ll never see that performance again (unless it’s being recorded of course!).
For improvisers, being in the moment and creating spontaneously is the final product of their efforts. They aren’t creating art that will be consumed at a later time.
The same can be said of musical improvisation too, especially jazz or hip hop. How much great music do you think Charlie Parker or Miles Davis made while improvising that was never heard again?
I’ve always felt there was a strong connection between street photography and improv. Blake Andrews touched on this a few weeks in his post about photography and uncertainty.
Photographs which occur in an uncertain environment have an energy that is often lacking in planned images. The purest example is street photography. A street photographer has no idea what he or she will see from one second to the next, and the best street photos feed on that energy.
There are many truisms about living in the moment that we’ve all heard and probably try to live by. Thinking about Maier and Winogrand and all the work they left behind, I’m left wondering if they truly did enter some sort of state of being where living moment to moment on the street with their cameras became the final product of their efforts, much like the improvisers.
And the photographs, well, they simply probably could never compete with those experiences which is why the rolls piled up and were left for others to sort out, and us to enjoy.
(You can view more on the Vivian Maier story here, where I’ve compiled links and quotes.)