There are often places and times during one’s life that things seem to stem from, or grow from. I wrote about 1986 a few weeks ago as a seminal time in the genesis of my adulthood, and the things that I’ve become. Equally, events in Chicago in April 2011 were pretty special too. My wife and I, along with our daughter, who was then just coming up to two, were staying there for a week before flying to San Francisco for a short stay with friends. Our daughter caught chicken pox, which meant we had to stay a further four days in Chicago and, to be honest, it was the best thing that could have happened.
Our daughter wasn’t too distressed by being ill, and the fact that we had a suite in a hotel meant that we had somewhere quite spacious to stay in central Chicago. Because one of us had to stay with our daughter whilst she was quarantined, it meant my wife and I had our own space to do exactly what we wanted in this fantastic American city without trying to please a toddler. Chicago gave rise to the London Letters idea that I’ve been pursuing as a business since early 2012, and it also allowed me chance to appreciate some great architecture and experiment with my photography.
I’ve always had an interest in photography since my teens and was always taken with the social history captured by the likes of John Gay and Oscar Marzaroli and I’ve increasingly become interested in the street photography movement, in awe because I don’t seem to have the courage to join it. It was during our stay in Chicago that I became aware of Vivian Maier and her extraordinary life and extraordinary street photography. I was reminded of her legacy by the Imagine documentary shown this week by the BBC.
Maier died in 2009, having spent over 40 years working as a nanny in the city. She was a strange, reclusive woman by all accounts and kept herself to herself. However, she was rarely seen by those who recognised her on the city streets without a camera, and during her life, she took over 150,000 pictures. Many of them were not seen or uncovered (even by her) until her possessions were sold from a locker she owned, whilst ill and in arrears in 2007. The photographs were split between two principal owners who have each promoted the pictures relentlessly since – I caught the second exhibition in Chicago in April 2011 – the first having been a four month stint at the city’s Cultural Centre – and the London Street Photography Exhibition in Kings Cross in July the same year.
He photography is captivating. Many are simple shots of events in the city – profiles, clinches, street activity, hobos, everyday transactions of emotion and material possessions. But they are beautifully exposed and captured, each warranting more than just a passing inspection. More than this, they capture the growth and change in Chicago during the period she was taking pictures, and that social and economic transition is as fascinating as the depth of character depicted within the images.
For me personally, I also like to try to capture the mundane and ordinary in a new and different way – I hope that my letters series is a testament to this – but it is very challenging to be a distinctive photographer in an age where most people have very sophisticated cameras in their phones and when photography is everywhere. I try not to waste pictures and I also like to experiment taking photos of the things we see every day – the image above is of people milling around a bus stop, taken from the roof of a car park. Maier is an inspiration to me, and her life is an enigma. She never knew the worth of her pictures and we will now never know just what she felt about her work and what motivated her to deliver it, and pass it on, in such a fashion.