When images are at the mercy of technology | Bleader

When images are at the mercy of technology

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Vivan Maiers photographs, currently on display at the History Museum, are anthologized in this new volume.
  • Vivian Maier's photographs, currently on display at the History Museum, are anthologized in this new volume.
Last week I finally visited the Chicago History Museum's exhibition of Vivian Maier's photography. If you haven't gone, I can't recommend it highly enough. The photographs here—which represent only a fraction of Maier's recently unearthed collection—vividly bring to life the Chicago streets of the 60s and 70s; this room has got to be the best time machine in town. Some of the subjects are momentous: the south side just after a devastating race riot, or the police barricades at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. But even the anonymous pedestrians who make up a good part of the exhibit are revelatory. Maier was evidently a master of shallow focus, locating the inherent dignity in her human subjects in the way she made them stand out from their surroundings.

What I take away from a great exhibit like this is that photography enables the person behind the camera to live in greater awe of reality. To create compositions with the stuff of immediate experience is to intuit a sense of order in the random and overlooked. It sounds like such a presumptuous thing to do, yet there's such humility in the work of a Vivian Maier or a Robert Capa or a Walker Evans. Their insights don't seem imposed upon the images, but discovered inside them—and these discoveries, of course, are the result of constant searching.

Frederick Wiseman's documentaries chronicle a similar relationship between an artist and real life. In his work, every moment feels unique, socially revealing, and above all spontaneous. I suspect he could make an interesting movie about practically anything—he seems to possess a tremendous patience that allows him to wait and let the film come to him. Though I revere Wiseman, I get the feeling that anyone could re-create his methods without extensive formal training. After all, Vivian Maier was an amateur, taking pictures when she wasn't at work as a nanny.

From Frederick Wisemans Hospital (1970)
  • From Frederick Wiseman's Hospital (1970)
It goes without saying that curiosity can't be taught. What needs to be said more often—especially in the context of filmmaking—is that curiosity shouldn't be stifled. One of the more dispiriting moments of any recent movie I've seen is in the digital-cinema documentary Side by Side, when some postproduction technicians demonstrate how they adjust the colors in ostensibly nonanimated films. "We can make trees purple!" one of them says, as though this were inherently better than seeing the trees' actual color. I have no problem with purple trees, so long as they feel like part of an overall aesthetic strategy. But this impulse to make images more colorful just because the technology permits it strikes me as a rejection of photography's special power.

Since seeing Side by Side, I've been more sensitive to color correction in movies. It's especially noticeable in skin tones—in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, for instance, half the cast looks nearly orange—but one can feel its pervasive influence in subtler ways. Watching Ulrich Seidl's Paradise: Hope yesterday, I was most astonished by all the gray skies in the movie. I couldn't remember the last time I had seen so many on a big screen. So much recent multiplex fare would have you believe the sky is blue most of the time, as though life were one big antidepressant commercial and that photography was meant to narrow rather than broaden our perception of the world.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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