Recently I watched a documentary about the street photographer Vivian Maier. She lived in Chicago from the mid 1950’s to mid 90’s. She was unknown as a photographer and left behind over a hundred thousand negatives and many boxes of undeveloped film.
John Maloof, a film maker, discovered several boxes of these negatives at an estate sale. He became intrigued by who Vivian was and the documentary Finding Vivian Maier is about his journey to learn more about her and bring her work to light. I found Vivian’s story fascinating and I highly recommend this film.
At one point in the film the photographer Joel Meyerowitz talks about the Rolleiflex camera which Vivian used. With the view finder on the top he described it as a “disguise camera”. One where there is an openness between photographer and subject, where direct eye to eye contact is possible.
As I listened to his words memories of Sonia, my mom, came rushing in. I remember her standing facing me. Her Rolleiflex hanging from a strap around her neck. The camera cupped in her hands, her feet slightly apart and pointing in. She would look down into the view finder, make a few adjustments, then look straight at me, her head slightly tilted to the side as her finger released the shutter time and time again. All this while continuing the conversation uninterrupted. It was like a dance. I can see her so clearly.
Mom came to the US at the end of WWII. My sister was born the last day of 1947, I followed in February 1950. I have no idea how my mom got into photography, no memory of this story. I remember hearing that she studied with a photographer in New York. My memory is that his work included the art of retouching final prints to remove unwanted objects that distracted from the essence the photographer wanted to convey in her/his image. I think of these artists and their work as being the predecessors of Photo Shop. Decades before this application was even conceptualized by software engineers at Adobe. I think it was in the early 50’s that my mom entered a photography competition in New York. I have a distant memory of being in my early twenties and Mom showing me the photo with which she won a prize. The original black and white photograph was of a street scene, maybe in Paris. I don’t remember it clearly but there, behind the tableau that my mom wanted to capture, sticking out like a sore thumb was an electrical wire, or was it a pole? At any rate, whichever one it was, in the final version of the print the object is gone without leaving a trace.
For several years during the 50’s Sonia photographed children. Once a year she would spend all day hanging out taking photographs of them as they went through their day. After that she spent hundreds of hours retouching the prints and putting together an album for the parents: A day in the life of your child/children. She would go back and visit these families every year.
Mom spent hours which turned into days with a very soft, fine tipped brush painstakingly dabbing tiny specks of shades of grays, from the darkest to the lightest, blending an area of the photograph over the part to be removed. Often there would be tiny specks of white on the photo, maybe marks left from dust or something on the lens and she would retouch each and everyone of them. As if she were painting in black and white pointillism. From my own experience as a painter and photographer I can imagine how over the years this work, along with hundreds if not thousands of hours she spent doing needlework, would have strained her eyes. Eventually she stopped doing both of these art forms. I wonder if this focusing, this being very much in the present was a form of meditation for her. I hope it was.
One of my deepest regrets today is that I don’t have any of her early photographs. I did a Google search for her and some of her later work, her self published books, came up but nothing from the early days. She gave me my first camera, her old Nikon. She had moved on to the newer Nikon and the Hasselblad which she had so much fun with. She loved being able to switch films! And the old Rolleiflex was always nearby in case she wanted to use it.
Sonia early 1970’s – photo Arati
Arati mid 1970’s – photo Andrew B.
I remember Mom, the photographer, the hours she spent in her dark room at the back end of the basement in Plandome, outside of New York City, while my sister and I built forts and played pretend grocery store in the basement. In this moment the acrid sweet smell of developer chemicals is present in my nostrils and the back of my throat. How amazing is this! Her fingers would be stained from the chemicals. Memories of the dark room, the red light, the white trays and the photos floating in them. She would gently move them around and then lift them up to hang from a string or wire that ran the length of the room. There was something magical about that dark room to which entry was by invitation only. Once we moved and had resettled in Mexico City Sonia no longer developed her own films. She found a lab and worked for years with the owner. I don’t recall his name but I do remember that his fingers too were always stained and his shop had that sweet acrid smell. I imagine that he was one of the few people with whom my mom could really share her love of photography, the intricacies of the whole creative process. On a few occasions I went with her to the lab. She and this gentleman would have lively, in depth conversations. It was as if my mom were in her element. There was a sense of aliveness in her, of being engaged, inspired.
A few days after watching Finding Vivian Maier I went on one of my usual walks in a nearby park. There are several playing fields and a dirt track that runs the length of one of them. In one section the track is bordered on one side by a row of redwood trees, and on the other by a row of concrete poles with electrical wires. I found the perspective and the juxtaposition between man made and nature’s trees startling and inspiring. I played around with this image for several days. Going back at different times, different light, clicking away on my iPhone 6s. I’m aware of how I develop a relationship with the subjects that I photograph. A sense of presence, of being with, of connecting. Once the images were on my computer I went through the usual process of sorting and sending some to the trash. Finally I came up with one that spoke to me more than the others. It drew me in. As I looked at it I felt a bodily sense of balance, centeredness. Beyond words I knew this image held the essence of the experience I wanted to express.
It was during this time that once again I thought of Mom, I felt her presence so strongly. And…. well, I will let the photographs speak for themselves. I offer them in memory of Sonia, to her creativity, talent, and the beautiful images she captured and transformed.
Trees n T’s
Final version ‘retouched’ in Adobe Lightroom.
Thank you Mom for the inspiration.
Note: Mourning Redwoods is a continuation of this piece