This post was sparked both by today being Independence Day, and by a BBC documentary broadcast last week, entitled “Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?”
The fascinating documentary tells the story of a thoroughly independent nanny who died in 2009, leaving behind thousands of photographs. Never seen in her lifetime, they were found by chance in a Chicago storage locker and auctioned off cheaply.
Described as a strange loner and an outsider who many around her were afraid to cross, Maier was a tough and unflinching street photographer, usually armed with a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera. Now she has ‘gone viral’, her pictures sell for thousands of dollars.
I was familiar with her story a couple of years ago when it first began seeping out, before my own brief trip to Chicago at the end of 2010.
But I didn’t know one part. Arguably more extraordinary than her photography of Chicago streets in the 1950s and 1960s, and the families to whom she was a nanny, was her travel photography. She embarked on a substantial round-the-world trip at a time when gap years hadn’t been heard of, and when such trips – particularly for lone women – were rare in the extreme.
Maier’s thirst for culture led her from Yemen to Vietnam, and from Mexico to India. In all of these places she took remarkable photographs, which is why various suitcases of her work are still being fought over.
While other documentaries are and will doubtless be made, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn of a film adaptation at some point, this BBC effort is a documentary worth finding the time for.
The documentary inspired me to go back through a few shots I took in Chicago during my wintry ‘vacation’ there a few years back. Although I raided the archives recently for a travel blog about my Wisconsin road trip, I hadn’t looked at the material captured within the city for a while.
Having only visited the big west coast American cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco before, as well as Las Vegas, I was initially wowed by Chicago’s literally edgy and stylish new-age architecture.
Paralysed by the bitter cold, thick snow and the ice-bergs on Lake Michigan, (ice-bergs! on a Lake!), I was also stunned by its scale and swagger.
Unlike Maier, I wasn’t often brave enough to closely eyeball the city’s inhabitants, but I did grab a few street scenes of my own.
New York is a whole other main course of a city, and an experience with many unique charms of its own. That hopefully one day still awaits me. On this occasion though, my own wander around Chicago was more than enough.
Independence is positive. An important thing to have and celebrate. Happy Independence Day, America.
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