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  • Writer's picturePeter VanderPoel

Critical Exposure

A Chicago historian, John Maloof, was looking for information about his neighborhood and came across a storage locker at auction that seemed to contain local images that might suit his needs. The negatives were auctioned to satisfy a debt owed to the company that stored them. He bought the box and in opening it released the unique vision of Vivian Maier to the world.

Vivian Maier had taken photographs through much of her life. An intensely private person, few knew of her obsession during her lifetime. She took photographs constantly during her walks through the streets of Chicago and New York, processed the images, but never showed her work to anyone-she simply filed them away.

Her work was a hair’s breadth from eternal obscurity. Had no one opened that box, would her work be considered art?

Like Schoedinger’s cat, we can ask if the negatives, unobserved, were alive or dead as art.

Her work would best be classified as “street photography”. Most of these scenes in her work show the everyday coming and going of the masses; in that respect, she saw the same scenes as those around her did. When she looked down into her viewfinder, though, the everyday was distilled into what she wanted to see and what other would see, too, even though the same view was available to everyone passing by.

Much like the ‘tree falling in the forest’, art is in need of a viewer and that viewer is necessarily human. Those who create their art but hide it out of concern for their ability or subject matter are depriving others of seeing another view of life.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows catalogues terms that have been invented to describe a unique verb, noun or emotion.

The term “Sonder” is described as

n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

The ‘sorrow’ component comes from both the richness and commonalities that are naturally hidden in each person that do not emerge unbidden. Art is an effective way to bypass that barrier.

Until the advent of photography, the goal of art was to recreate what was seen or could be imagined, as exactly as possible; “photo-realism” before that word was invented. When the camera appeared on the scene, artists needed to repurpose their work to describe something more profound than reflected light.

I recently visited an exhibition of German Expressionists at the National Gallery in Washington, DC entitled, The Anxious Eye. Many of the works could be considered unattractive or disturbing-but it gave insight not only into the people who created it but their emotions and their culture as well. What they depicted was not ‘realism’, but their emotional reaction to a person or scene- how it made them feel.  In this sense it was, perhaps, more descriptive than movements that preceded it and opened a new pathway for those who followed.

Vivian Maier passed away not long after John Maloof bought that storage locker. But his discovery has given us all a glimpse of life in some of the great US cities and the people who lived then. The curtain of ‘sonder’ has been parted, just a bit, for those people, for those places and for that era. It’s a wonderful gift.

Art is one antidote for sonder. Other’s hidden ambitions and worries can be directed into the outlet of art.

Often the conversation after a movie is better than the movie itself.

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