Photographic portal to a secret, bygone world

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

‘The things happening on Tokyo’s streets are always fascinating to me,” Nobuyoshi Araki told me during an interview in 2012. Though best known for being the maestro of Japanese erotica, Araki has retained a particular love for street photography. Now 75, he still loves to prowl around the streets of Shinjuku and Ikebukuro with his old camera. And he is not alone — many renowned Japanese photographers have launched their careers from the streets of the metropolis. Ihei Kimura was one of the first photographers to stand on the thronging streets of Ginza in the early 1950s, and snap away at the shoppers, those intent on embracing Western culture, ideas and fashion after the dark years of war and defeat. Kimura treated the streets like a studio, and generations of photographers followed his example. As with Araki, they are drawn to the ever-changing cityscape and its constant metamorphoses. What’s here today could be gone tomorrow, and magazines such as “Tokyojin” are devoted itself to documenting and archiving the here-and-now of Tokyo streets in their brief and strange glory.

Among this legion of street photographers, however, there are none (that we know of) who have kept their work a secret. To do so would probably defeat the very purpose and meaning of street photography. But over in the U.S., a Chicago nanny named Vivian Maier did just that. She took thousands of powerful street photographs and never let the world know about them. The documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” is a quest to discover the identity of this elusive, mysterious photographer, whose work was never shown during her lifetime and whose talent was literally kept under lock and key for decades.

In 2007, Chicago collector John Maloof paid $380 for a huge case full of old negatives at a local auction. At the time Maloof was studying Chicago’s history and he thought the negatives would come in handy. As he scanned them, he became increasingly intrigued about the photographer — but there were no hits when he searched for “Vivian Maier” online.

“After that, I posted 200 photos on my blog,” Maloof tells The Japan Times. “I immediately got hundreds of comments. Everyone said they loved them.”

Maloof spent the next two years collecting more of Maier’s photography, and in 2009 he finally found her name online in an obituary. She had died at the age of 83, just a few days earlier.

Maloof was one of Maier’s first fans, and knowing she had recently died prompted him to become a curator of her work, as he continued to discover more about her. The result of his searching is “Finding Vivian Maier,” which Maloof co-directed with Charlie Siskel (who worked as a field producer for “Bowling For Columbine”).

“I was fascinated by this idea of an artist whose work was so interesting and satisfying to so many people,” Siskel says. “And yet Vivian Maier was an artist who apparently didn’t need feedback or encouragement.”

By all accounts in the film, Maier herself didn’t want it any other way: “Mystery Woman” was a nickname she jokingly gave herself. Her wards — now adults and many of them middle-aged — all testify to her secretiveness, and how guarded she was about her private life, despite living with the families she worked for.

“She insisted on a room at a secluded corner of the house with a door that locked,” says the mother of one of Maier’s charges.

She may not have been a typical doting nanny — she wasn’t always affable or forthcoming — but Maier was also no strict disciplinarian. She always had her young charges with her when she took her street photographs, and they were left to themselves while she clicked away. Today, a nanny could be accused of gross negligence for doing that. She simply had interests beyond her day-to-day job.

Street photography has evolved a lot since Maier began shooting. Now anyone with a smartphone can document what’s happening on the street, and, as Araki said in that interview, “We live in a world where everyone is a photographer, the only weapon a professional has at this point is their own unique vision of the world.” Maier certainly had the vision — her photographs attest to an intense curiosity with the world and a game willingness to engage (albeit briefly) with the people she captured. She also took a lot of self-portraits, though she seems to approach the self in these “selfies” as an appendage of the street and surroundings, rather than anything to share with other people.

What gives her work a special relevance and professional tinge, is a sense of detachment and disinterest. Her photograph are rarely warm and never personal and U.S. photographer Mary Ellen Mark (who passed away in May) appears in the movie to laud Maier on her skill in framing subjects.

Siskel says it’s easy to be self-critical about digital photography and to feel inferior to a reclusive artist.

“You hear people beating themselves up about how everyone is posting everything to death in an over-sharing world,” he says. “It’s so easy to jump on that wagon, but we didn’t want to do that. It’s true Vivian was doing things very differently from us. At the same time though, she owned a whole lot of cameras, some of them digital, and she was up on the latest in photography since we found a lot of cuttings from magazines and pamphlets and so on. She was a meticulous preserver of all that she photographed, and everything that happened in her life. She saved old receipts, old memos — everything. Who knows, maybe she would have gone on Instagram and had her own blog.”

Maloof added that, above all, he wanted the movie to respect Maier.

“During filming, we were always asking ourselves if she would have been OK with how we’re treating her work,” he says. “I think overall the answer is yes.”