Friday, 30 January 2015

Born into Brothels

Helen's pick for #2 in our photography movie series was "Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids," a 2005 Academy Award winning documentary film from filmmakers Zana Briski and Ross Kaufman.  I have to confess, I was apprehensive at first, not appreciating what it would have to do with photography as I knew nothing about it before I started watching.  I hunted it down -- finally found it available (in full, for free!) on Youtube, here.

Documentary filmmaker Zana Briski went to photograph and film the prostitutes of Calcutta's red light district. But along the way, she realized that kids were everywhere living in the brothels.  She started a photography class, giving the kids cameras and teaching them how to use them, how to compose, what makes a good photograph.

And Helen, I have to say -- I loved this movie. In terms of photography, I loved that it said a lot about what photography can do.  How each person's view of his or her life is important.  How (as one kid says) a photo may show something hard to look at, but we have to look because it's true.  How holding a camera is empowering, and can lead to the realization that our view of the world is valuable.  The film work in this movie captured the chaos, the crowding, the noise, the dirt, the grim reality of life in that place, too.  So there was the added layer of movie cameras filming, and saying on a bigger level what the kids were saying with their own photos.

It was hard not to get attached to each of the kids -- some so lively and quick, some serious and worried, seeing the reality of their likely futures.  And so watching as "Zana Auntie" tries to find schools who will take them, tries to get one talented boy a passport so he can travel to another country as an award for his artistic ability -- was poignant and gripping.  I'd love to know where those children are today.  (Actually, I went and looked to see if there was any information.  There's an update from November, 2006 here and another from 2010 here.)

I found it hard to separate my emotional reaction to the content from the film and imagery -- which I guess is what good film-making and photography are all about, eh?

By the way, maybe you need to team up with your lawyer/photographer friends to do an exhibit at your friend Nisha's restaurant, to raise money for Kids with Cameras!

So, great pick. I don't think I'd have heard of this movie but for it being on the list and your picking it for us to watch!

Oh - and here's my pick for this coming week:  Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film (2002).  It's also available, in full, on Youtube here.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Responding to Finding Vivian Maier

This post is my response to Diane's post about watching the film Finding Vivien Maier. It will make more sense if you read her posts here and here ffirst.

Dear Diane,

I am so glad you suggested this film. I watched it on my iPad in bed having retired early on Wednesday night while my Husband watched some tedious historical drama. (He loved it, the 'tedious' description is all my prejudice against the Tudors!). It's a treat just to make time to watch a film like that mid-week so that's the first good thing to come out of our joint project. The second is that it was a wonderful inspiring film.

You asked whether it made me want to go out and shoot street photos and whether my camera had a tilting screen to make it possible to do that from waist level. The answer to both is yes. So, I did go out the very next lunch time and have a go and the pictures you see here and very arrogantly) not Vivien Maier examples but my very first attempts at street photography. I learned that finding people doing interesting things in interesting places is quite hard! I am not at all sure I achieved it. ore practice and a copy of The Street Photographer's manual appear to be in my future,

I have to say that I tried the tilting screen but I found it easier and more natural to just have the camera to my eye and if anyone looked at me askance I just kept the camera to my eye as they moved past as if it I was in fact waiting for them to get out of my shot, or I moved myself slightly to a different angle as if I was simply taking multiple photos of a building.  I obviously got more confident as on my way back to work I saw this small girl who was giving her mother some trouble getting her across the road. I simply took the shot and then wondered if the mother who had noticed would be offended. Without really thinking I just bent and showed the little girl the LCD screen and said, "This is what you look like with a crying face look! Isn't that funny? Shall we take a photo of a happy face for your mummy?" The mother thought it hilarious, the child would not pose for me but she did stop crying!  

I took all these photos in colour and converted later in Lightroom and found that it made all the photos much better not to have the distraction of colour. I know that street photography need not be black and white but it is noticeable that it does tend to work best that way, don't you find?

But, to return to the film. I had several thoughts stemming from it:

1. One of the people in the film asked: what was the point of her taking the pictures if no one saw them. I think there must have been a point for her or else she would have stopped doing it. I am sure you could get into a lot of psychoanalysis abut her hoarding and was this part of it ,but I am sure the answer is simpler at its most essential level. She must have found pleasure in it. How often do we dismiss that as a proper reason for doing anything? Curiosity, fascination, creativity. No-one would say those were negative words and yet if you exercise them alone people ask what the point is. Odd isn't it? Yet no one asks why people sunbathe on a beach or go to see a film or paddle in the sea.

2. I thought it was interesting that the major art intuitions refused her work and yet an exhibition of it was widely successful. I don't think there is anything wrong with institutions defining what objects they wish to acquire. In fact it makes sense for them to have a policy so their collection is cohesive and so that their funders know what they are giving to. But the fact that the big institutions do not accept a person's work does not in anyway mean it is not of worth.

3.I thought that many of the photographs were interesting mostly because if what they showed about the era in terms of dress and housing. I suspect that many of her photographs would have been seen as mundane and ordinary  (except of course of her ability to capture a particular expression or moment.) I wondered if she knew that? Knew that they were part historical documentation and that their time had not come and would not until after she died? It made me wonder what there is around to photograph that is day to day now but in thirty, forty, fifty years will seem isolated in its time. Or alternatively, what there is that is typical of where I  live that in other cultures will seem different. Even looking at the houses and brownstones in the film made me know immediately it was set in the US. Do we recognise enough the scenes that are around us all the time that are not to be found elsewhere?

I wondered what you might say there was to photography where I lived like that. Fish and Chip shops was the best I could come up with!

So, have you ventured out with your tilting screen yet?

As for our next film, if people want to follow along, I have nominated Born into Brothels. it doesn't sound cheery but apparently its about an amazing transformation that having a camera can bring.


Saturday, 24 January 2015

More thoughts about Vivian Maier

So I've been thinking about Vivian Maier's photographs since I watched the film on Sunday.  And here's what I've been thinking about it:

1.  Her photos conveyed emotion.  To be honest, I've never studied great photographers, I've done more reading on the techniques of taking photographs and processing them.  But I've been thinking about some of VM's photos, the images that have stayed with me -- and I've concluded that the reason they are staying with me is the way she's captured an emotion -laden moment.  Here are a few that have stayed in my mind:

2.  And that has made me think about my own photography.  I usually avoid photographing people.  In part it's a bit of reserve, feeling that it's somewhat intrusive to take someone's picture.  And I think it's related to my being essentially introverted -- my gut reaction is usually  that having people in a picture ruin it, I'd rather see the scene without people!  So it's far easier for me to see art in objects and scenes than in people.  I'm realizing that I need to think differently about it.  But my first impulse (in any art -- photography, drawing) is to avoid people.

3.  And then I started thinking about the photos of people I have taken -- other than family ones, I mean.  It's easiest for me to photograph kids.  Partly I think it's that kids are so expressive.  It's fun to watch them, and when they're little, their emotions flit across their faces so plainly.  Partly, too, they seem more accessible (in my world, anyway).  Some how having a child enter a scene I'm watching doesn't feel intrusive the way an adult entering would. (Hm.  Perhaps there is an issue for therapeutic exploration here!!)  And then they are usually so involved in their own moment, and they are often so oblivious to people around them, that I don't feel as if I'm intruding to shoot them.  I still am of course.  So is the intrusion I'm worried about my sense of invading their privacy, or my fear of being perceived as intrusive? By the way, you can see the few photos of people I've posted on Flickr here.   And, I'm pleased to realize, I think why I liked them enough process and post them is that they do have an emotional content to them. 

4.  And THAT makes me think about how (as someone commented in the movie) VM using a waist-held Rollieiflex probably made her street shooting easier.  It looks less intrusive and less obvious to shoot from the waist, versus the obvious "I'm taking your picture" act of bringing the camera up to one's face to point and shoot.  Does your camera have a viewing screen that can tilt out?  Mine does -- and that makes me think that perhaps we should each try using the camera as VM did, shooting from it hanging from our necks. 

Finding Vivian Maier

So, Helen -- what did you think about this movie?

[To our readers -- Helen and I both like experimenting with photography, and recently we came across an article online called "40 Movies About Photography Every Photographer Should See." We decided to watch the same movie within a short time period and compare our reactions.

I was up first to pick -- but the photography movie I most wanted to see wasn't even on the list!  The movie was "Finding Vivian Maier", from 2013.  We compared notes, found we could both access the movie, and decided it was up for our first joint movie venture.]

The movie tells the story of how a young man. John Maloof, bought a box full of negatives at an auction, and was so intrigued by the photographs that he begins searching into the life of the woman who took them. He buys up more of her negatives, and finds (and buys) her storage unit stuffed full with boxes.  She was Vivian Maier, a New York-born nanny and housekeeper who carried her Rollieiflex camera with her everywhere, taking photos with a truly remarkable eye.  So the story unfolds -- of an unassuming woman, her amazing photographs, the effect she had on the people around her.

So what did I think?

I thought it was absolutely fascinating.  The photographs were mesmerizing.  I've never been drawn to taking street portraits, but gosh, I was really struck by how strong hers were.  She captured strength and frailty and love and pathos and all sorts of emotions.  I was also struck by that aspect of art that always draws me in -- turning the most mundane moments of life into art.  It's a special sort of eye to do that, I think.

Were you as intrigued by the mystery aspect of the story as I was?  Finding out who she was -- and I loved hearing about how Maloof was so intrigued by so many photographs that were obviously from the same European village that he hunted and hunted and compared photographs until he found which village it was.

I found the descriptions of her from the families she worked for and lived with interesting too -- but mainly interesting in how different their views were of her.  It made me wonder whether she was different in each setting, or if they had her at different times in her life, or whether it reflected more about the people who described her than it did about her.

Mostly though, I came away feeling that it's important to just take pictures, and keep taking pictures.  In part to develop one's eye, but maybe more importantly to make onself see what's there... to see the art that's in front of us all the time.

I'm thinking one could learn a lot from studying her photographs.  Oh -- the film mentioned how Maloof posted the first photos of hers that he developed on Flickr -- and I've just gone to look.  There are a lot of her photos there.

Oh -- another thing I loved -- how Maloof laid out various collections on the floor and shot them from above -- her boxes. Her paper ephemera.  Her buttons and doodads.  I'm always drawn to seeing collections of things laid out so graphically like that. 

I'll be interested to hear what you think. Did it make you want to get out and take photos?

And now it's your turn to pick!