how not to take a photo

I’ve been in LA for almost a week now, visiting my father and welcoming my daughter from Israel who was here for the weekend. My father asked me yesterday if I wanted to go to the movies with him. He loves going to see movies on the big screen. I’m usually just as happy watching something on my home computer screen. We are very different people, as I’m re-realizing over and over recently. But of course, I said yes, sure. He suggested “Noah”. I said there’s probably something I’d rather see–let’s check the movie listings. Aha! Perfect. “What about going to Finding Vivian Maier?” “Sure.”

He bought the tickets online, which was good to see. And so we drove to the theatre. We parked the car and went up the escalator 5 floors to the theater. “What about using the elevator?” “I never noticed there was one before.” The movie, I figured, would be perfect because my father has always been a photography buff. He enjoys taking photos and viewing them, and this would not be something that was a shoot-’em-out or chase scene thing. I had seen some things about her and the mystery about her life, so I thought it would be entertaining as well.

I was enthralled. Perhaps there is nothing better for me than a mystery without bloodshed but with beautiful art. The movie proves that her photos are very moving. How did she gain such an eye? There’s one suggestion given every-so-briefly in the film, but I wanted to find out more about this woman Jeanne Bertrand. Here’s a bit more about her from the same website about the documentary:

Jeanne Bertrand was a notable figure in Vivian’s life. Census records list her as the head of household, living together with Vivian and her mother in 1930. Jeanne’s upbringing was similar to Vivian’s – she grew up poor, lost her father while young, and worked in a needle factory in sweatshop like conditions. Yet by 1905 we can read about Jeanne Bertrand in the Boston Globe, being touted as one of the most eminent photographers of Connecticut. What makes this even more surprising is that Bertand had picked up photography only four years prior to that report. But, even if Bertrand was an early influence, it must also be noted that Bertrand was a portrait photographer. Vivian first picked up a camera in the southern French Alps in about 1949. The photographs she took were controlled portraits and landscapes. The odds are strong that Vivian might have been taught by Jeanne Bertrand.

In 1951, Vivian arrived in New York City continuing the same techniques she practiced in France with the same Kodak Brownie camera in 6×9 film format. But, in 1952, Vivian’s work changed dramatically. She began shooting with a square format. She bought an expensive Rolleiflex camera – a huge leap from the amateur box camera she first used. Her eye had changed. She was capturing the spontaneity of street scenes with precision reminiscent of Henri-Cartier-Bresson, street portraits evocative of Lisette Model and fantastic compositions similar to Andre Kertesz. 1952 was the year that that Vivian’s classic style began to take shape.

My father has a few photos by Kertesz in his home. Wouldn’t you think he’d be inspired by this even more?

His age is showing. He fell asleep soon after we got there, with the coming attractions. I nudged him and he got right up, but then I stopped bothering him. He figures he slept through half of it; I figure more. He plans on going again to see it.

When we left the theatre and were going down the first escalator to go this time to the elevator the rest of the way down to the parking lot, I saw a woman who was stationed as if to get the most attention possible. She was dressed very smart, with a polka-dot dress, a black fedora, seamed stockings, and a camera. But it really looked like she was inviting people to photograph her.

I really really wanted to. If I were Vivian Maier, I guess I would have figured out how to. But I’m not. My father would have taken her photo without a problem. He approaches people all the time, and even prints out copies of the poses and holds them in his car, just in case he sees them again in his travels. I am so not my father. He is a gregarious extrovert and I am a faker when I’m with him, eagerly awaiting when I can crawl back into my introvert shell. I can take photos of things without asking them, or of people in large crowds, but not of strangers. That’s just too painful for me, even for someone who was clearly asking for it.

Okay. Learning who I am is part of the journey.

Okay. The whole thing.

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