I Found Vivian Maier – But It Was a Long Drive

“You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
― Ansel Adams

Vivian Maier, self portrait

Vivian Maier, self portrait

About a year ago I was stretched out on my couch, TV remote in hand, clicking through the channels – way past the point of holding out hope that anything remotely worthwhile would emerge shimmering from the flatscreen. I was, I suppose, mistaken.

A documentary called Finding Vivian Maier started up somewhere in one of the channels in the one-thousand-eight-hundred-something range. It was done by a New York artist named John Maloof. He was doing a book on the past years of the Big Apple and was haunting estate sales for photographs of a historical nature. He bought a box of some sort, hauled it home, and discovered it was full of both photographs and hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film.

And what photographs!

They were urban street scenes – but done with an impeccable eye and amazing composition. They were as good as the best professional work – but were a complete mystery. Who had taken these? How did they end up in this box? Why were they so good?

So Maloof started going through his box, finding scraps of paper with names and addresses that gave him his first clues as to who the photographer was and what the story behind them was. That story turned out to be as amazing as the shots themselves.

The photographer was a woman named Vivian Maier (though she used a number of different spellings of her name).

Some details of her life are still a bit fuzzy – but she took these photos while she worked as a nanny. She would walk around the city with the children, taking photos. She did this for years and years.

The filmmaker tracked down some of these kids, now grown, and interviews them about the odd woman that used to babysit them, and drag them all over the place with her trusty Rolleiflex.

I watched the biography several times and talked about it to my friends. Everybody that saw it found it as fascinating as I did. Of course, I searched for her work on this inter-web-thing – finding one amazing image after another.

Then, earlier this summer, I was driving to work, listening to a local radio station in my car – when a woman came on to announce the art happenings in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. She said, “And opening today, at the Arlington Museum of Art, is the show “Vivian Maier Lost and Found” and exhibition of work by the reclusive photographer. When I arrived home I did a quick Google search and found everything I needed to know.

I hadn’t even been aware that there was an Arlington Museum of Art. But it was easy to find, right in the middle of Arlington, which is right in the middle of the Metroplex. I was amped.

Things were really busy, so I didn’t go right away. The show ran all summer, so I wasn’t in much of a hurry. But, time flies, and my warning note in my Bullet Journal (Vivian Maier Exhibit Ends Soon!) reminded me that I needed to go. Luckily, I had some vacation time that I had to take so I put in for a Friday off and made plans for the solo drive to Arlington.

It’s a long way. There are giant elevated Texas concrete toll-roads that crisscross the ancient prairie like slashes from a celestial scimitar and I used my friends at Google Maps to maneuver through this unhuman maze without any real difficulty. Summer storms roiled and rolled by, windy, raining and thundering, but not able to significantly slow the stream of metal meat-cases plying the roads.

When I entered, a guy took my ticket and started to explain the exhibit. “But I know you’re excited,” he said, looking at me shifting from foot to foot, “So I’ll let you go look and not waste your time. Come back and ask me any questions.” Actually, I had to pee, but I appreciated his skills at observations.

It was really cool. Not overly large – fifty works in total. I was familiar with Vivian Maier, of course, but seeing the photos in professional quality gelatin prints, matted there on the well-lit walls… that is a thrill compared to staring at humble pixels on a laptop screen.

I decided that my favorite was this shot of two men staring at a coil of something in the rain. It seems to tell a story.

Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier

Then I asked the guy that took my ticket what his favorite was. There is this amazing shot of a man in a newsstand. I especially like how the titles on his wares illustrate the times.

Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier

And he liked (as did I) this mysterious shot of a winged car and some cats. It’s a spaceship guarded by two felines.

Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier

A cool afternoon, well worth the drive.

I’m a little ashamed that I knew nothing of the Arlington Museum of Art – the new show there looks really cool. It’s an exhibition of local artists called Ulterior Motifs.

I think I’m going to be making that long drive again.

Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier

Getting a Ross

“Sergeant Spearman, you are positively glutinous with self-approbation. You might as well speak out.”

—-Alfred Hitchcock, Frenzy

For several years now, each February or so, I have travelled down to the Kettle Art Gallery in Deep Ellum for their For the Love of Kettle affair. This is a “competitive shopping event” where two hundred or so works of art, all 8×11, are displayed on the walls. About three hundred people are unleashed through the opening doors at once and grab the paintings they want. If you desire something by a particular artist, you have to be quick, decisive, and efficient. I wrote about it three years ago – you can read about it here.

One of the artists that I have always wanted to get at the show was Richard Ross. He is a very well-known local artist, with a distinctive personal style. His murals are found on walls in Deep Ellum and other spots.

Richard Ross mural in the Deep Ellum Art Park (detail)

Richard Ross mural in the Deep Ellum Art Park (detail)

Richard Ross Column Deep Ellum Art Park, Dallas, Texas (Click to Enlarge)

Richard Ross Column
Deep Ellum Art Park, Dallas, Texas
(Click to Enlarge)

In the years past, I was always too late to get a Ross, even though he usually donated a handful of works to the show. I always wait in line for an hour before the opening (I’m usually fifth in line or so) but I get overexcited and confused and fail to grab the good work fast (it’s OK, everything at the show is cool – I probably should buy something at random). His stuff always sells immediately and I took too much time (around thirty seconds) making up my mind. By the time I made it to the table with my list of numbers his were gone. This year I was extra quick and decisive – at my turn only two of his three were purchased. So I bought his Tethered to an Upside Down Giant.

Tethered to an Upside Down Giant by Richard Ross

Tethered to an Upside Down Giant
by Richard Ross

I like the little drawing on the back of my painting.

I like the little drawing on the back of my painting.

Now, months later, I saw that the Kettle Arts Gallery was having a show, Hireath, of paintings by Richard Ross and Jessie Sierra Hernandez. The opening was on Thursday night, which is really tough for me. I’m exhausted at the end of each work day, but I try to do what I can – life is too short. I finished up at work and caught the DART train downtown. I fortified myself with a cold wheat beer at Braindead Brewing and walked across Main Street to Kettle Art.

Dry Hopped Wheat beer from Braindead Brewing in Deep Ellum

Dry Hopped Wheat beer from Braindead Brewing in Deep Ellum

The show was positively glutinous. Kettle Art is such a crackerjack place.

I talked to Richard Ross for a minute, he said the characters in his painting are “Keyholes” – I suppose that is a term that can represent a limited view into their souls.

From the Internet: The “keyhole” figures represent the locked inner conscience we have in our public appearance. Basically the “keyhole” says that there’s more inside than just the facade, and it’s protected. Some of these figures will appear two faced to show more complexity in the character.

Richard Ross and some of his work, Kettle Art Gallery

Richard Ross and some of his work, Kettle Art Gallery

I shuffled around the gallery several times, ogling the art. I am usually good with my lifelong poverty, except when I’m visiting art galleries. I have this fantasy where I strut around with a big douchebag expression on my face braying, “I’ll take this… and this… and this.” Alas, it is not to be.

In addition to the paintings in his familiar style he also had some interesting early works and some smaller paintings.

The little ones were really nice – the ink lines gave them a strong graphical emphasis.

But what I really liked was a series of 12 medium-sized artworks, arranged in a grid. These were framed by random smears of painted color – precious views into a hidden world or a different dimension. They shared the strong lines of the small works, but the extra bit of size allowed them additional layers of complexity. Each one told a little bizarre story. Actually each one tells hundreds of little stories – different for every person that sees them.

Does this make sense? I’m afraid you’ll have to go down there and see for yourself (the show is open until September 17). I wished I could slide out the cash and buy the lot of those mediums – display them on my humble wall like they were at the gallery.

I didn’t stay long – it had been a long day and I was fading fast. It was a short walk through the dark to the train station and the ride back home.

No Country for Old Dogs

“You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.”

—- Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

I am so tired when I come home from work – it’s a struggle to do anything other than fall asleep.

So I try to do something on the way home – anything remotely useful, fun, or interesting. Today I stopped off at a tea place, Kung Fu Tea, to get some milk tea and write a bit on my netbook.

Everything worked out, except I couldn’t think of more than a few interesting words – and once my tea was gone I packed up and went home. I sat on the couch to decompress and turned on the great mind-eater… the television.

Flicking deftly and expertly through a long-learned series of channels I ended up watching the last twenty minutes of “No Country for Old Men.” I love that movie.

First, I’m a big, big fan of Cormac McCarthy. I’ve read pretty much all of his books. I put “No Country for Old Men” in the middle of the pack… but middle of the pack for McCarthy is still better than pretty much anything else in the world.

I’m even a fan of the screenplay he wrote, “The Counselor.” Everybody else hated that movie. You see, the average moviegoer saw the previews and thought they were in for a drug deal-fueled thriller. And that isn’t what it is. It’s a Cormac McCarthy movie. The plot is merely a distraction, a feint that the magician waves in front of the audience to distract the suckers from what is really going on – you have to pay attention to the long bits of boring dialog – that’s where the real story lies.

Oh, and as for “The Counselor” – it doesn’t help that it has two scenes – one violent, one sexual – that are so far over the top that ordinary moviegoers are appalled to the point that there is no way they can enjoy the film. Again, that’s McCarthy. Read his masterpiece, “Blood Meridian,” if you want over the top. I read that the proposed Russell Crowe / James Franco movie version has been shitcanned. Probably just as well – “Blood Meridian” is unfilmable… as the best books must be.

Back to “No Country for Old Men.” I’m sure a lot of moviegoers thought that film also was a drug deal-fueled thriller… even after they had seen it. It isn’t. The movie is about the Tommy Lee Jones character and his inability to soldier on in the face of overwhelming modern evil. The rest of the plot is, again, a distraction… or more accurately a colorful backdrop against and armature holding up the story of the aging sheriff – the last of his line – as it plays out.

The movie ends with the defeated and retired Tommy Lee Jones telling of his haunting dreams. To end this way – it must also start this way or the whole thing is unfair. On my television, right after one showing ended, another began. So I stayed for a few more minutes. Sure enough, the movie starts with a five minute monologue voice-over spoken by the sheriff while scenes of beautiful West Texas desolation slide across the screen.

That voice-over, ignored and forgotten by most viewers, tells the whole story… before anything actually happens.

Our old dog, Rusty, slept on the couch through all this… as he does for pretty much everything. He has to get his solid twenty-three hours a day of sleep in or he isn’t happy. Right in the middle was a commercial for Burger King. Apparently, they have decided to take all the guts of a Whopper and wrap it in a tortilla. They call it a Whopperito.

This truly is the best of all possible worlds.

I couldn’t help but look at the sleeping dog and think about how happy he would be if he could ever get his paws on a Whopperito.

It would be the best day of his life.

PS – If you really want to see the two horrific scenes from “The Counselor” – and I hesitate to do this – you can watch them… here and here. But please don’t blame me – you were forewarned.