Monday, March 11, 2013

What You Do ...

There's a saying: Morality is what you do when no one is looking.

I got to thinking about that the other day, when a Facebook friend posted a blog link that coined a phrase I plan to callously steal: The Vivan Maier Test.  It's an interesting piece in and of itself, and you should follow the above link to read it, but it got me going on a tangent.

Lately, you see, I've continued to shoot stills on film, but I haven't the money to process the film (or, for that matter, buy new film -- much of what I have shot lately has been on old stuff that's been aging like fine wine in my fridge.)  Yet I still do it, because ... well, because that's what I do.  I am a photographer, and this takes me to The Vivan Maier Test.

She, as you hopefully already know, was the Chicago nanny who had quietly and privatly shot thousands of photos, apparently for her own amusement.  The quality of the stuff is, frankly, stunning, yet she was completely unknown until some of her negatives were sold in a storage bin auction.  Soon there will be a documentary on her story.

Anyway, here's the point: she shot this stuff without an outlet, apparently without any viewers at all for that matter.  She seems to have done it, I guess, just for the creative satisfaction of it.  How ... pure.

It makes me think of discussions I used to have with friends in college. Mind you, this was in the late 70s and early 80s, so the big media were magazines and newspapers and stuff like that.  One friend had found the rate for a full-page ad in TIME -- some astronomical figure that sounded like the yearly income for a common worker.  With a little additional math -- models, transportation, other accessories -- we figured a major ad campaign ran up six figures of costs alone pretty quickly.  Again, in the early 80s.  So, we laughed, when a top photographer demands thousands of dollars before he even picks up his camera ... well, as a percentage of total cost, that wasn't so much.

But that was an image and phrase that stuck with me: He won't even get out of bed unless someone writes a check for X-thousand dollars.  Frankly, it was an appealing image.  It engendered dreams of a luxurious life in a beachfront hammock.  "How much?  Oh, very well ..."

However, either age or the changing times has shifted me toward the purity of Vivian Maier ideal: to shoot because it needs to be shot, to make a picture for its own reasons.  I wouldn't turn down the thousands -- and it could be argued that the shift for me has been in some way inspired by the profound absence of people offering hundreds, let alone thousands, for my presence -- but there is a true nobility and grace and beauty to the idea.

Apparently, this is a growing feeling.  David Burnett recently did a quick posting on the joys of film, and Vincent Laforet just blogged on a similar experience.  "Somehow, for the first time in awhile, the end result – the resulting 'still photograph' was beautifully overshadowed by the pleasure I felt with the simple act of 'taking my time,'" he said about going out with film as part of a challenge.  But, you see, he still needed to be challenged.  I'm talking about a compulsion.

So, I am a photographer, and I'll keep shooting pictures, ideally with the cameras I'd like to use and on the media (film or digital) that I wish, but I'll do it with whatever I can, even if it's out-of-date film that I can't afford to process.