Fear and Self Loathing – Vivian Maier and Bill Cunningham

I hate myself immensely, so you don’t have to bother. I have also forgiven myself, both for being so hate-able and for being such a hater. But you know what they say: haters gonna hate. When I think about my own fear and self-loathing, I think about two street photographers: Vivian Maier and Bill Cunningham. From my vantage point these are two of the most ambitious, talented people to ever pick up a camera. But at the same time, two of the strangest.

59th St Subway Station

Many of their photographs were never shown while they were alive and may never be shown. They lead immensely private, bordering on reclusive lives. So fascinated by the world and its visual splendor, they weren’t at all fascinated by sharing it, satisfied in keeping their greatest creations to themselves. I’m not trying to take an ounce away from Bill Cunningham’s public work in asking what the fuck is in all those filing cabinets

Coney Island

It is a major issue for me as a longtime Bill Cunningham fan that his hermetic existence and monk-like dedication to privacy severely limited what work we ever saw of his. Why Bill? How could he not take the time to catalog all of this, print it, put it online, pay someone to do it. Bill could have had people lining up to do it for free, but he’d never ever agree to it. It really is almost selfish to create private works of art. But dedicating your entire life to doing so crosses into the perverse.  The intensity of the pain I feel from not being able to view Bill’s work derives only from the profound respect I have for him.

The City

Something you spend your precious time and energy creating but decide to keep it for yourself is a private artwork. While it is important to not release everything you create publicly, Bill Cunningham and Vivian Maier took this to another level in that they essentially did not release anything at all (aside from Bill’s paid work for The Times).

Broadway & 32nd St

Why? Having thought about it a great deal, it comes down to two things. 1) Fear; the fear of failure, the fear of success, fear of the unknown, fear of how people might think of you if they see how you really see the world. It might sound ridiculous, but being an artist is to open yourself to the world – by definition in showing your art, you are showing yourself and hence it entails a loss of privacy. If you’re shooting for someone else, it’s work. If you’re shooting for yourself, the work is you. 2), I think on some level, a person also needs to be unhappy with themselves to not share their art. They must see themselves as in some way broken, and although their art is therapeutic and positive for them, it is still the product of a broken person and by proxy is broken itself. They cant fully enjoy it because it reminds them of themselves who on a certain level they hate. If you cant forgive yourself for your own failures, you cant really expect others to, and art is an extension of the self.

Self Portrait

I don’t know if any of what I’m writing is true, but I’m guessing that at least some of it is. I say this based on what I know about creative people, artists, musicians, myself, and it is just pure speculation. Incendiary talent often emerges from a dark, empty place.  Maybe Vivian Maier was a totally normal, well adjusted individual who conformed to all sociological expectations of her time and was fully satisfied as a human being caring for other people’s children. Perhaps she never felt a dull moment in her life. Maybe she actually was a psychologically content, happy person. But looking at her photographs, to me it is clear that she was trying to fill a void. Beyond just boredom, some crucial part was missing inside of her. She was creating meaning in her life where there wasn’t any. And she created a lot. Both of her and Bill were prolific street photographers. Theirs voids were so large they became a black holes which swallowed their lives.

Nassau Ave G Station

Street photography is like magic. We’re creating art out of everyday street scenes and regular people. It almost never works but when it does it feels like stealing – all you did was push a button. You walk outside your house and the world is a canvas.  The allure of that next shot being right around the corner is tantalizing. It is so immediate, it is like a drug. Normal people do drugs too, sometimes. But what makes use normal is that you put it down and go back to normal life. But for some of us, normalcy isn’t really a choice.

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