Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘photography’

26 NOVEMBER, 2013

Mysterious Street Photographer Vivian Maier’s Self-Portraits

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How a remarkable woman, at once mythical and legendary, saw herself.

In 2007, 26-year-old amateur historian and collector John Maloof wandered into the auction house across from his home and won, for $380, a box of 30,000 extraordinary negatives by an unknown artist whose street photographs of mid-century Chicago and New York rivaled those of Berenice Abbott and predated modern fixtures like Humans of New York by decades. They turned out to be the work of a mysterious nanny named Vivian Maier, who made a living by raising wealthy suburbanites’ children and made her life by capturing the world around her in exquisite detail and striking composition. Mesmerized, Maloof began tracking down more of Maier’s work and amassed more than 100,000 negatives, thousands of prints, 700 rolls of undeveloped color film, home movies, audio interviews, and even her original cameras. Only after Maier’s death in 2009 did her remarkable work gain international acclaim — exhibitions were staged all over the world, magnificent monograph of her photographs published, and a documentary made.

But it wasn’t until 2013 that the most intimate and revealing of her photographs were at last released in Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits (public library) — a collection befitting the year of the “selfie” and helping to officially declare this the season of the creative self-portrait.

Maloof writes in the foreword:

As secretive as Vivian Maier was in life, in death her mystery has only deepened. Without the creator to reveal her motives and her craft, we are left to piece together the life and intent of an artist based on scraps of evidence, with no way to gain definitive answers.

There is, however, something fundamentally unsettling with this proposition — after all, a human being is a constantly evolving open question rather than a definitive answer, a fluid self only trapped by the labels applied from without. And so even though Maloof argues that the book answers “the nagging question of who Vivian Maier really was” by revealing her true self through her self-portraits, what it really does — and what its greatest, most enchanting gift is — is take us along as silent companions on a complex woman’s journey of self-knowledge and creative exploration, a journey without a definitive destination but one that is its own reward.

It’s also, however, hopelessly human to try to interpret others and assign them into categories based on the “scraps of evidence” they bequeath. I was certainly not immune to this tendency, as I began to suspect Maier was a queer woman who found in her art a vehicle for connection, for belonging, for feeling at once a part of the society she documented and an onlooker forever separated by her lens. Because we know so little about Maier’s life, this remains nothing more than intuitive speculation — but one I find increasingly hard to dismiss as her self-portraits peel off another layer of guarded intimacy.

The beauty and magnetism of Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits is that it leaves you with your own interpretations, not with definitive answers but with crystalline awareness of Maier’s elusive selfhood.

Photographs via Maloof Collection HT Colossal

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19 NOVEMBER, 2013

Stunning Photographs of the World’s Last Indigenous Tribes

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From Siberia to the Sahara, by way of face paint, mud masks, and eagle-hunting.

In the late 1990s, photographer Jimmy Nelson became fascinated by Earth’s last living indigenous tribes. It took him a decade to begin documenting their fascinating lives, but once he did, what came out of his 4×5 camera was nothing short of mesmerizing — a glimpse of what feels like a parallel universe, or rather parallel multiverses, to our Western eyes, yet one full of our immutable shared humanity. The magnificent results are now gathered in Before They Pass Away (public library) — a lavish large-format tome featuring 500 of Nelson’s striking photographs, standing somewhere between Jeroen Toirkens’s visual catalog of Earth’s last nomads and Rachel Sussman’s photographic record of the oldest living things in the world.

The journey took Nelson all over the world, from the deserts of Africa to the steppes of Siberia. He writes:

I wanted to create an ambitious aesthetic photographic document that would stand the test of time. A body of work that would be an irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world.

The semi-nomadic Kazakhs, descendent from the Huns, have been herding in the valleys of Mongolia since the 19th century and take great pride in their ancient art of eagle-hunting.

The Huli of Papua New Guinea migrated to the island about 45,000 years ago. Today, the remaining tribes often fight with one another for resources — land, livestock, women. To intimidate the enemy, the largest tribe, the Huli wigmen, continue the ancient tradition of painting their faces in yellow, red and white and making elaborate wigs of their own hair.

Legend has it that the Asaro Mudmen of Papua New Guinea’s Highlands Province had to flee from an enemy into the Asaro River. There, they waited until sundown to make their escape. When they rose from the river banks covered in mud, their enemies took them for spirits and ran in terror. To this day, the Asaro maintain the mythic masks to petrify warring tribes.

Though the Gauchos of South America might appear more “modern” than other indigenous tribes, these free-spirited nomadic horsemen have remained a self-contained culture since they first started roaming the prairies in the 1700s.

A distinct ethnic group and even more distinct cultural collective, Tibetans, descendent from aboriginal and nomadic Qiang tribes, are known for their prayer flags, sky burials, spirit traps, and festival devil dances, which encapsulate their history and beliefs.

The Maasai endure as one of the oldest and greatest warrior cultures. As they migrated from the Sudan in the 15th century, they took possession of the local tribes’ cattle and conquered much of the Rift Valley. To this day, they depend on the natural cycles of rainfall and drought for their cattle, which remain their core source of sustenance.

The reindeer-herding Nenets of northern Arctic Russia have thrived for over a millennium at temperatures ranging from 58ºF below zero in the winter to 95ºF in the summer, migrating across more than 620 miles per year, 30 of which consist in the grueling crossing of the frozen Ob River.

In his entertaining and moving TEDxAmsterdam talk, Nelson tells the story of how his life changed when he lost all his hair, why he traveled through Tibet on foot, and what led him to this project:

See more of Nelson’s remarkable photos on the project site and treat yourself to the treasure that is Before They Pass Away. For a “tribal” ethnography of a very different kind, yet one strikingly similar in many ways, complement this with Humans of New York.

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15 NOVEMBER, 2013

The Lesbian Love Letters of Pioneering Victorian Photographer and Photojournalist Fannie Benjamin Johnston

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“If I have been proud of you and your work and put you on a pedestal, as you say, please let me keep you there, for you deserve it surely and that is my way of loving.”

Pioneering photographer Frances “Fannie” Benjamin Johnston received her first camera as a gift from Eastman Kodak founder George Eastman and used it to usher in a new era of photojournalism. Beginning with portraits of family and friends, she was soon recognized as a formidable talent and came to photograph some of the era’s greatest celebrities, including Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Roosevelt, becoming a true self-made woman and creative entrepreneur by the standards of the age. Around the time she turned thirty, Fannie met Mattie Edwards Hewitt, the then-wife of the St. Louis photographer Arthur Hewitt — a marriage the arrangements of which remain unclear, but appear to have been largely for practical purposes. Mattie worked in her husband’s darkroom and was herself passionate about photography, so when Johnston first encountered Hewitt’s work, she was impressed and complimented it effusively. This mutuality of creative admiration soon blossomed into romantic love — a proposition particularly radical, and even dangerous, for two nineteenth-century women.

And yet what a romance it was — the soul-stirring letters from Hewitt to Johnston, found in the altogether fascinating biography The Woman behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864–1952 (public library), join the ranks of other exquisite epistolary exchanges of lady-love, including those between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wynn Matthison, and Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.

Mein Liebling —

… Just reread your letter, am I all the nice things you say about me, I wonder? Ever since you told me that I was indeed worthwhile, I have felt like another woman, and now if I have been able to make you truly care for me, well, I am very very happy over it. You do not know the wealth of tenderness there is in my heart for you, and shall I tell you why I have needed you so much and seemed so longing for love and affection? I have already told you of how little of the above I [received] in my home.

When I married that nice little man, I thought of course I should get all the love my heart had yearned for, but somehow he has always seemed too busy to stop long enough for such nonsense, as he calls it.

Seven years ago, baby came and stayed just long enough to leave me with a hungry mother’s heart. Since then I have never met with anyone that could fill this great big [void] … until I met you in Buffalo and well, you know how I have tried to show you in every possible way that I loved you, loved you dearly.

… I am not foolish enough to expect you to love me in this way only it was so sweet and meant so very much that I could not but tell it over and over.

Your life is so full and your friends so many — that you have cared for me should make me satisfied.

I am not going to weary you with a love letter every time I write, so don’t worry dear…

… If I have been the help you say I am to you, then I am more than glad. I have been so afraid from the first that you would think me a foolish sentimental woman and I was so happy when you told me the other day that you understood — If I have been proud of you and your work and put you on a pedestal, as you say, please let me keep you there, for you deserve it surely and that is my way of loving. . . .

I wonder why I expect you to understand me better than most people — is it because I love you so?

In another letter, Hewitt wrote:

…Ah I love you, love you better than ever you know. . . . Yes my dear we will turn over a new leaf and stand together in time of weakness or need of help and we must not ever again turn away head or take hand away but when I need you or you need me — must hold each other all the closer and with your hand in mine, holding it tight, I will clear away all misunderstandings or doubts and the sun will shine again. . . .

And in another:

I slept in your place and on your pillow — it was most as good as the cigarette you lit and gave me all gooey — not quite, for we had you and the sweet taste too — I am foolish about you I admit. . . .

Portrait of Frances Benjamin Johnston by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

In 1909, Mattie divorced Arthur and moved to New York to be with Frances, living and working together, and eventually making their creative collaboration official in 1913 when they opened a joint studio specializing in architectural photography. The only surviving record of their romance are those early letters from the years when they lived apart and wrote to each other, more of which can be found in The Woman behind the Lens.

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