The Vivian Maier Lesson

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Undated, New York, NY

This is one of the most fascinating photo-related stories of late.

In 2007, John Maloof, a 26-year-old real estate agent and amateur historian, found 30,000 of photo negatives at a Chicago estate auction. The photos depicted streetscenes in Chicago of the late 1950s and the 1960s, each scene meticulously dated and placed on the back of the photo. The photos had come from a storage unit the photographer had stopped paying rent on.

The photographer was Vivian Maier, a New York girl who moved to Chicago in 1956 to begin working as a nanny for various affluent North Shore families for the next forty years. Her nannying work enabled her to enjoy early morning drives on her moped, along with a Rolleiflex camera.Although Maloof could not locate her, he posted the photos to his blog. A search yielded no results until Maier died in mid 2009, and a brief obituary was printed. She had been in a nursing home.

Retrospectives followed, as did two documentaries: “Finding Vivian Maier” and “The Vivian Maier Mystery”. But a lesson is somewhat lost. Vivian Maier’s photos were lost — and rediscovered fifty years later. They were fascinating — fascinating because they showed a different world and fascinating because they show it in crisp tones of a physical negative.

Currently, nearly everyone — even some of the greatest names in photographic pantheon — takes their photos digitally. They do not last and they will not last.

Firstly, there are hardware issues: I still have photos stored on a Floppy Disk and CDs, but my laptop does not come with drives for them anymore. The time will come when USB drives are not backward compatible anymore (already my external hard drive has issues with an USB 1.0 on work computer).  USB itself might be replaced by a superior technology (as Floppies had been). But an uncomfortable truth is that CDs, DVDs, hard drives they all inevitably fail.

Then, there are software issues. Will the computer of 2064 still recognize raw or jpg formats? The Economist had a great article two years ago. Already, I don’t have a program on my computer to read the earlier ebooks (.lit), and .epubs and .mobis will go that way too. Last week, there was a popular post on Reddit that encapsulated the problem tautly, and encouraged people to start printing photos.

When it comes to photography, printing is not really a solution — prints fade and get destroyed too.  Vivian Maier survived because her photo negatives survived.

Wayne Miller (1918 – 2013)

Wayne Miller, the chronicler of a black post-war Chicago, has died, aged 95.

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When Wayne Miller returned to Chicago after serving as a combat photographer for the U.S. Navy, he witnessed how his hometown had changed. The city’s south side had been attracting African-Americans since the “Great Migrations” of the 1910s and the 1920s — so much so that the suburb of Bronzeville was known as the “Black Metropolis” – but Miller arrived back at a city whose industry had grown exponential during the war. Stockyards, mills, and factories were now manned by a new upwardly mobile class of African-Americans who fled the oppression of the south and emigrated to Chicago searching for industrial jobs.

With the help of the great Edward Steichen, whom he befriended during the war (and with whom he would corroborate later), Miller won two concurrent Guggenheim fellowships to fund his ambitious project to document this new social fabric. The two-year effort, collected as “The Way of the Northern Negro”, was an intimate portrait of a bygone Chicago, from church services to tea [marijuana] parties to demimonde of female impersonators.

In his Chicago, midwives delivered babies in dim-lit homes; slaughterhouse workers drank and brawled in the taverns till morning; couples made love with open windows and on balconies. And all human life was there, from celebrities like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington to an ordinary man [photo below] whom Langston Hughes singled out as the perfect image of his famed character “Simple”.

Miller’s assessment was so sympathetic and so full of hope that it was chosen to accompany Richard Wright’s bleaker essay “The Shame of Chicago” in the Ebony Magazine. It was also the first time the magazine broke its own rules to give the photographer a byline.

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