Four years ago, a Chicago real estate agent by the name of John Maloof discovered a large collection of candid “street” photographs taken in the 1950s and 1960s by a Chicago nanny named Vivian Maier. Helped by the internet and a carefully calculated public release, Maier’s work is now attracting tremendous popular interest, catching the eyes of both scholars and photographers.
I first encountered Maier’s work while searching the web for articles on photography and photographic equipment, as is my habit. Upon finding a blog with Maier’s work and self-portraits prominently displayed, my first thought was, “These photos look like they were taken by the world-famous Diane Arbus."
Granted, I'm no expert on Arbus’ photography, but I've heard things about it that always return to the words “surreal” and “weird” as a way of describing its peculiar quality. Beyond simply the strange appearance of many of her subjects, I guess it's a kind of instantaneousness in her photos that makes them appealing, something about how life can start to look strangely discordant when chopped into little temporal slices by the click of a shutter. That weirdness is certainly there in Maier's work, too. Often, Maier’s style — resulting from her close proximity to her subjects and the “avant-garde” timing and framing of her shots — seems nearly identical to that of Arbus.
It takes a kind of brusqueness and self-driven ability to get past strangers’ personal barriers and produce this kind of photo, an attitude somewhere between the “interested observer” and the “invader of privacy.” It's a psychological barrier that I struggle with, as do many other photographers. In my copy of “The Honeywell Pentax Way” (a 1966 guidebook intended for amateur users of Pentax 35mm single-lens-reflex cameras), the author advises photographers not to wait until a scene is devoid of human content, but to shoot pictures of people “without hesitation . . . [I]f they object, tip your hat and smile.”
The only times I've been able to break that barrier are when I’ve been shooting photographs of political protests or street scenes in foreign countries. In both cases, the barrier is easy to cross. Usually, no one cares about what you’re shooting (or even notices that you’re doing it). As for photographs taken in foreign parts, a practitioner of “subaltern” theory would say that tourists are simply practicing the “hegemony of the foreigner” when they snap a picture. Take the theory for what it’s worth; I’ve never paused long enough behind the camera to ask myself, “Am I being hegemonic?” Whether that question ever crossed Arbus’ or Maier’s mind, we may never know. If it did, it wouldn’t have helped them break any barriers, personal or artistic.
Whenever I think about their kind of photography, I remember an incident that took place when I happened to be on the other side of the camera, the subject side. My family and I were taking a trip to Death Valley and Las Vegas on one of those quirky tours run by a Chinese travel agency, and tailored specifically for Chinese wallets and efficiency — that is, we were given only 15 minutes per scenic vista, were housed in cheap hotels that reeked of equally cheap cigarettes, ate third-rate buffets for almost every meal, and were herded on and off the bus like cattle.
At one buffet stop — and these were all Chinese buffets — we were turned out of the bus in some Nevada country town, approximately in the middle of nowhere. We were waiting outside while the guide went in to secure tables, when a scrawny, dark-haired teenager with inverted baseball cap suddenly glided up to us on his skateboard. He produced a Pentax 35mm film camera with a 50mm lens, of the type ordinarily used by high school photo students and starving artists. He started to take pictures of us, moving down the line of tourists, all of whom gawked back at him. Watching him snap away, I realized that if I were in his position, and didn’t have the embarrassment I usually have about photographing strangers, I might have taken the same pictures. And it was a real Diane Arbus moment — a bunch of Asian tourists waiting outside a run-down buffet, in an equally run-down strip mall with an otherwise deserted parking lot.Weirdness and discord!
In this case, however, the subjects resisted — at least some of them. When the teenager skated up to my family and started to photograph us from close range, my dad bristled. “Don't give that punk the benefit of a smile,” he said in Chinese. We all scowled at the kid — but he didn't let up. He just snapped and grinned maniacally at us (I suppose that’s what Arbus looked like, when she was working) until he skated away. I imagine that somewhere, in some art gallery, there is now hanging a beautiful black and white print of us, an angry-looking family of Chinese tourists waiting impatiently outside a country town buffet. The photograph is probably entitled “Untitled No. 4,” or “The Visitors,” and the teenager has made a lot of money out of it. One might say that he, Arbus, and Maier were all cut from the same cloth — or perhaps printed from the same negative.
But were they? I think not. As photographers and persons known or unknown, they were all individuals in their own right, for better or for worse. After all, there is “human content” on both sides of the lens.