Art of Photography

Rob Townsend

Vivian Maier, Don McCullin and Honesty

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The first two films in the 2013 run of the BBC’s arts documentary series ‘Imagine’ were about two very different photographers: Vivian Maier, the French-American nanny whose work laid undiscovered for decades, and Don McCullin, the highly acclaimed war photographer. At first glance they couldn’t be more different; but after watching both films and researching their work, I’m increasingly persuaded that they represent a particular facet of photography: the topic of honesty.

Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?
BBC2, Tuesday 25 June 2013, part of Imagine series, presenter: Alan Yentob

The tale is amazing, if increasingly well-known: Chicago nanny of French origin takes tens of thousands of photos documenting street and family life in her neighbourhood in the 1950s and 1960s; she never shows them, simply hoards them away until a time where she can no longer afford to pay the storage fees and they are sold off to speculative traders; slowly the wealth of her work is revealed and after her death she is feted as the great unsung heroine of American street photography.

The human story is interesting enough, but what piqued my interest was this: how does someone spend their life taking thousands of great – often amazing – photographs without ever sharing them with anyone? Think about that for a minute: photography is an inherently visual medium; it exists as art if there is a viewer to appreciate it (or hate it, or be intrigued by it, or be indifferent to it) – it needs a reaction, doesn’t it? It feels like half of the photographic endeavour was missing until after her death, when it was finally fulfilled in a huge outpouring of viewing, critique and appreciation.

The subject matter was street life, almost all was in mono. The style was candid, observational – commenting without words on the America of the 1950s and 1960s. It’s fascinating to see the subject matter change, even if the streets didn’t: from families in the early 50s, through down-and-outs and outsiders, to people-less shots of refuse and decay; mirroring her view of the world, one presumes, and equally capturing the mood of the nation over those two decades. The passage of time possibly lends the pictures a more interesting life than if they’d been seen contemporaneously; they simultaneously reinforce and shine a light on an era that we’ve had the benefit of fifty years to digest and make sense of.

So one can presume she took photos just for herself, for her own interest. Anecdotes from people who knew her don’t imply that she was particularly lacking in confidence. A great many photos she never even printed; as the narration says, some of these images haven’t been seen since Maier looked through the viewfinder. Maybe it was the act she enjoyed rather than the end result. Whatever the reason, the body of work she produced is highly rare, maybe unique, in that she never took any feedback, was never guided, edited or influenced by anyone else, never sought or received any praise or criticism: her work represents the pure, unadulterated artistic vision of one person. The ultimate, lifelong personal project.

Which brings us to the point that really hit home for me: the level of honesty in her work. Honesty in photography works at different levels:

  • You choose, or are told, what you’re going to shoot in the first place (for example, the changing instructions given to the photographers in the US Farm Security Administration project of the 1930-40s – first asked to find examples of the poor and dispossessed, then as the Second World War took hold, told to seek out subjects that embodied the proud, upbeat spirit that America wanted to project)
  • You choose exactly where you point the camera, what you fit in the frame (you “put four edges round the facts” as Garry Winogrand puts it); you crop out what doesn’t fit your point/vision/agenda
  • You select the captured images that convey the message you want to get across – this hit me over the head when I saw the outtakes from the famous Diane Arbus shot of the skinny kid with the toy grenade; in the final edit he looks edgy, creepy, an outsider… but the contact sheet shows shots of him laughing, looking happy, like a normal kid
  • You tweak, crop, retouch the images in what we now call post-processing, to better fit your vision; this can be subtle, or it can be highly contrived or constructed as in advertising or fashion photography

Maier may have done the first two of these (as mentioned above, she changed the subject matter over the years), but she could never be accused of any further manipulation or even editing after the shutter clicked; not if she didn’t even look at the results afterwards. Her portraits capture real people, with lives, emotions, hopes etched on their faces; her street shots show completely unconstructed scenes of daily life. It’s a form of photographic truth that, combined with her natural technical skill, makes for a body of work that really draws your gaze. Put simply, my personal preferences lean towards honesty rather than staging in subject matter.

In the digital age it’s pretty hard to try to emulate Maier’s ethos. We all share our work, and I dare say all of us seek acknowledgement and feedback. It’s not easy to stick to a pure artistic vision like she did – and we shouldn’t even try in my humble opinion. But it has made me think about the importance of being ‘photographically honest’: to compose in-camera, to take fewer photos, to resist the temptation to rattle off a load of shots and think ‘one of them will be OK, I can fix it in Lightroom’ etc.

BBC2, Tuesday 2nd July 2013, part of Imagine series, produced and directed by David Morris and Jacqui Morris

Being a documentary about probably the most famous living war photographer, this is more straightforward in its dissection of the issue of honesty – or integrity, or truth as it is referred to in this context. It’s an astonishingly powerful film, bringing home not just the horrors of war but the effect they have on the individual witnessing and recording it. Donald McCullin comes across as a supremely humanitarian photographer, yet conflicted: on the one hand he talks openly about his need to record the atrocities to show the world the unpalatable realities of war, and on the other hand he admits to the adventurer in him enjoying the adrenaline rush of being in a war zone – in one archive interview saying he needs “one war a year”.

War photography is supposed to be inherently about honesty. It’s reporting, not entertainment. It’s capturing events, not staging them. There is a larger question on photography as a form of propaganda, when interested parties direct the scenes being captured and select the images being shown. This insinuation can never be levelled at McCullin; he worked for newspapers, not governments, and at least up to the Murdoch takeover of the Sunday Times he was allowed to cover the war zones without editorial influence.

The honesty question works on a couple of levels in this film: what struck me about McCullin was how open he was about his conflicted feelings on his work; how he confessed that he was affected by what he saw and haunted by not just the photos he took, but by the ones he chose not to take. And yet continued to go back to the frontline. He was honest about his approach to capturing the truth.

There’s a lingering impression of regret; not really for his choice of career – however conflicted, he comes across as believing he did the right thing – but for the legacy of his work somehow having a counter-productive impact. The ‘success’ of his style of war zone reportage in the 1960s and 1970s was such that it’s been subsequently difficult to get the same kind of raw access to the frontline… the USA felt the sting of the public backlash against Vietnam and the war photographer has been treated with a certain amount of suspicion ever since (indeed, McCullin thought himself to be the obvious choice to cover the Falklands conflict, but was barred from doing so lest he paint the UK in too negative a light). In the end, he might have been too honest.

The sense of conflict obviously remains; whilst the film ends with him looking back on his career, claiming all he wants to shoot these days are landscapes and plants, I’ve since read that he made a trip out to Syria recently. So much for retirement.

A pair of inspiring, humbling and thought-provoking films.


One thought on “Vivian Maier, Don McCullin and Honesty

  1. Pingback: Book: Vivian Maier – Street Photographer | Rob Townsend

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