Monday, January 17, 2011

Vivian Maier, Corinne Day & Flickr

Last year, I received a new digital camera for my birthday. People had been raving about how digital SLR cameras were revolutionizing filmmaking, and so unbeknownst to me, Ian invested in a new Canon 5D Mark II , the leading camera in this particular area.

I’ve always been a photographer and a filmmaker, but I haven’t seen them as being the primary languages through which I work. I’d always thought that drawing and animation were my primary medium, because I’d studied them and, more importantly, because my ego relied from an early age on praise for good draughtsmanship. Throughout my studies I had taken photographs, and photographic processes informed by animated films. Now, having moved from England to Australia, with the gift of a new camera, photography asserts itself back in to my life. It provides me with an opportunity to look closely at the world around me, and to project out in the form of my photos the world inside me.

From the moment you let photography in, an immense indebtedness begins to build up, and there you realize the extent to which photographic seeing and thinking has shaped us. Consider photography, as a history and culture with innumerable daily events.

I learned of two photographic events today that resonate and connect deeply with my own work right now. I learned today that in August of last year Corinne Day passed away. Perhaps more shocking in reading the various obituaries was the recurring figure of her birth date, 1965. I assumed she was as young as me (and as precocious). Of course she wasn’t, but the sense of association to her images made her mine. Corinne Day defined my youth in the early 1990s, with her images of so-called “heroine chic” models, and her infamous collaborations with Kate Moss.

Day’s steely waif-like images of young women articulated the particular kind of refined-yet-gritty beauty that ran through those years. Her images certainly went on the shape and reinforce those conventions as the style paradigms of the era. At the time her photography was popular, and I absorbed her photographic imagination through magazines and album covers, I took to transforming those influences in to characters, drawn in biro on A4 paper in my teenage shed/bedroom. The emotional heaviness of her photographs articulates an inner struggle that speaks volumes to the adolescent eye. The model no long exists in a remote utopia, but as an exemplary sufferer, connecting pain and art in a commercial idiom.

I discovered the obituary of another photographer today, Vivian Maier. Unlike the fashion icon Day, Maier died in 2009 in obscurity. Her legacy as a photographer discovered through the auctioning of her belongings. In death, she left behind some 100,000 negatives of her photographs, which portray Chicago street life, fashion and society from the 1950s through to the 1990s. Her work is of such startling quality that it holds up to comparisons with Walker Evans and Bruce Davidson. John Maloof, who discovered her work, is putting together a book and a documentary.

I think Maier is fascinating to us because she is so incredibly skilled, but also because she represents a rare creativity that clearly didn’t crave attention. In an age of digital photography and imaging, where images are shared and uploaded to numerous sites and often before being enjoyed (sharing for social capital rather than personal pleasure), what does it mean to look at the lost & found work of an anonymous master photographer? Vivian Maier’s work lacks the support of her testimony, but we can look at her photographs and consider the artistic voice they imply — a vibrant personal vision, rampant curiosity and deep humanism.

To an old love, Corinne Day, and a new one, Vivian Maier. You are both incredible.

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