I DIDN’T SPEND AS MUCH TIME AT THE ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO THIS YEAR as I have in previous years. The many hours I’ve spent with my camera wandering around the AGO (and other art galleries) have been a big part of reviving my love of shooting. But without youngest offspring attending art classes at the gallery, however, there have only been two visits there with my Fuji X30.
This is an ongoing project that I probably wouldn’t have pushed this far without digital camera technology. Between the nearly silent shutter on the X30 and its waist-level LCD viewfinder, stalking random gallery goers has never been easier. I suppose I could be doing this out on the street, but shooting inside art galleries has the effect of eliminating variables like weather and light.
If there’s anything notable about this year’s photos it’s that I’ve started cropping tighter and moving in closer to my subjects. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve gotten more confident with this project or that I’m more of a psycho about my “street photography” and how much I’m happy to take from the passersby who stray in front of my camera.
Still not sure about where this is all going. There’s a few years worth of these shots now, all loosely grouped under the title “Right Behind You.” I don’t think I’m quite there yet with the project as a cohesive whole; maybe I need to shoot in a bunch of other museums, or maybe I need to take this back out onto the streets. This next year seems like the time to make a decision about the future of my lurking.
AROUND FOUR YEARS AGO MY YOUNGEST DAUGHTER started taking classes at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I volunteered to take her on weekend mornings, which usually meant I had a couple of hours to kill just when the gallery opened. At first I used it as an excuse to wander around the neighbourhood with my camera, but after a while I began sticking to the galleries, taking pictures of the rooms and the gallery goers – making photos of people looking at art. I would start the morning with a coffee in the Galleria Italia and then slip into the adjacent rooms of Canadian art to start my furtive shooting.
At least a year ago my daughter was definitely too old for me to be taking her to class, but it had become our ritual, and frankly I had had come to enjoy those two hours every week, lurking around the AGO with my camera, stalking my subjects. But with her last class just before Christmas she was officially too old for the kids’ art programs. She’ll likely be back to take portfolio classes in high school, but my excuse to spend every weekend sneaking my photos was over.
These photos are a selection of the best shots I took in the gallery last year. At some point in the last four years a random challenge turned into a bit of an obsession, and I realized that I was creating a series – an ongoing project I’ve christened “Right Behind You.”
I also took photos at other art galleries, and when I was on travel junkets – any place where people went about the business of looking at things, individually or in groups. I suppose the whole project actually began over thirty years ago, with some photos I’d taken in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, before I had any idea that I’d make photography my career.
As someone who’s specialized in portrait photography, this was a challenge – anti-portraits, of people who didn’t know their picture was being taken, most of them shots with their faces turned away from the camera. If I was shooting this on film, I might have used a Rolleiflex or a Leica rangefinder; cameras with nearly inaudible shutters. In the digital era I’m even luckier – my beloved Fuji X-30 has a virtually silent electronic shutter, and an LCD screen that folds out for waist-level shooting. It’s basically a street photography challenge, confined to a single venue, with most of the variables of shooting on the street – crowds, the clutter of buildings in the background, changing conditions of light and weather – removed.
Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from heading back to the AGO on my own. But perhaps it’s time to take my little project to some new venues, maybe back out into the streets. What I do know is that setting myself this challenge regularly has helped keep my reflexes sharp and my eye in practice. But the melancholy part is that this particular series of photos marks the end of a discrete period of my time as a father.
BEGAN THE NEW YEAR WITH PHOTOS – specifically, the photos of Vivian Maier, in a show at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. It was a daddy-daughter date; my oldest is a huge fan of Maier, and has watched the documentary Finding Vivian Maier on Netflix multiple times. I’d never seen Maier’s work outside of books or TV, so it seemed like a good reason for us to take the GO train west to the end of the line.
The AGH show is subtitled Street Photographer – which seems a bit redundant since street photography was pretty much all that Maier did. It was basically most of the photos shot on her Rolleiflex that appeared in the 2011 book of Maier’s work – also called Vivian Maier: Street Photographer – plus a selection of the 35mm colour work she did in the ’60s and ’70s, and a room where eight of her rolls of 8mm film were projected in a loop.
If you know or care about photography, Maier’s story is well-known by now. She worked most of her life as a nanny in New York City and Chicago, taking photos in her spare time and amassing a body of thousands of negatives that went unseen until they were discovered by John Maloof, a Chicago filmmaker and photographer, at an auction of the contents of one of Maier’s storage lockers in 2007.
Maloof knew the value of what he found, and managed to collect together most of Maier’s negatives and photos; he posted them online on a photo blog and on Flickr, and the reception to Maier’s work was overwhelming. It was obvious that these weren’t just snapshots by an eager amateur. Unfortunately Maloof’s Google searches for Maier only found a reference to her in 2009, just a few days after her obituary had been posted.
“Had she made herself known she would have become a famous photographer,” said Mary Ellen Mark, while going through Maier’s work with Maloof in Finding Vivian Maier. But she didn’t. For some reason, Maier kept her work to herself for decades while working as a nanny and housekeeper for various families (including Phil Donahue’s) and hoarding tons of things besides film negatives – newspaper clippings, clothes, political memorabilia, bus transfers, mail, uncashed cheques, trash – as she moved from place to place.
The story of Maier’s rediscovery happened around the time I began my old blog. It resonated for me, much the way that the story of Charles Jones did fifteen years earlier – a British gardener whose masterful still life prints of fruit and vegetables were discovered in a trunk at an auction. (Jones’ glass negatives had been destroyed years earlier; his granddaughter recalls him using them to make cloches for young plants.) Even more than with Jones, I identified with Maier; I could imagine my own work languishing in storage boxes somewhere after I was gone, and it probably ended up spurring me to post my photos online.
But the question of posterity is only something that becomes important to an artist after their death, when they can’t do anything about it. Reputation, on the other hand, is something only a living person would care about. Most of the people who knew her say that she wouldn’t have enjoyed the fame she has today when she was alive. She might have resented John Maloof and his efforts immensely. But she hoarded the raw material for a biography, including films and audio tapes and countless self-portraits, which gives the impression of someone fighting against time to preserve a record of themselves.
Apart from the obvious quality of Maier’s photography, that might be one of the things that’s made her story so fascinating – that someone who worked so hard at her art, who obviously understood the value and skill that it showed, would have hoarded it so zealously and shunned the pursuit of reputation. (The shot below, one of my favorites, is an example of how Maier transcends the comparisons that have been made with photographers like Robert Frank, Lisette Model or Diane Arbus.)
There might not be any way of discovering more about Maier – a truly obscure person who has only accidentally been gifted with posterity – but there are still thousands of images that remain unseen by anyone but Maloof and the people who do his scanning and printing. There might be a Vivian Maier working today, but while Maier’s unwillingness to seek reputation when she was alive kept her from presenting her work to the gatekeepers of the analog world – dealers, agents, curators, editors, gallery owners and patrons – today’s Maier would probably find themselves lost amidst the hosepipe of images flooding every minute from Instagram, Flickr, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, DeviantArt, 500px, VSCO and Smugmug.