Doing the Vivian Maier Thing

The great American street photographer Vivian Maier (1926–2009) often included her own reflection in her pictures. She did it very deliberately, either as a kind of signature motif or else as a question: “Who am I? A Chicago nanny or a great photographer?”

You get a good impression of Maier herself in these shots. When they’re placed in series you can see her neat appearance, her style of dress, and her thoughtfulness.

In the photography itself you can also see Maier’s inventiveness and her visual wit. In one photo, her characteristic shadow, complete with hat and handbag, falls on a poster which carries the words “Heaven Can Wait,” almost obliterating the angel.

Self Reflections
I don’t attempt to imitate Vivian Maier’s work, but opportunities do present themselves on occasions when taking a self-reflection is either unavoidable or desirable.

In the featured image (at the top) I was struck by the colour combinations and the way in which the curves and straight lines seemed to be at war with each other. The arrow points to the main subject: the two mannequins who face into an empty street.

I’m afraid you have to look closely to find “the Vivian Maier thing.” It’s there in one of the mirrors that are used for helping motorists see around corners at a junction. My reflection is in the red mirror, to the left of the scooter.

reflected scene in Kuala Lumpur

The Distant View
Maieresque? Not really. In the featured image I’m too distant to be recognisable by others, but I can recognise myself. Much the same is true of the image immediately above.

When you include a distant image of yourself in a street photo, the effect is more like one of Alfred Hitchcock’s walk-on appearances, when he famously intruded into his movies as an extra in the background.

In my image of men cleaning office windows in Kuala Lumpur, the self-reflection is very much a secondary part of the visual interest. We’re attracted first by the bright red squeegee on a stick, then we puzzle over the shapes of the reflected city. At first, it looks more like a collage than a reflection.

Eventually, the eye is drawn to the lower left where it looks as though the cleaner is working on a different reflection altogether. But the straight line separating the lower third of the first five panes of glass is, in fact, a reflection of a curtain wall, in front of which I’m standing.

You’ve Seen It Before
I’ve already used the next shot (below) in a previous post. Well, I mentioned that I don’t often do “the Vivian Maier thing,” so I don’t have a surfeit of material.

shop window

In this shot I’m much more recognisable (I’m the one with the camera). As a composition the shot is better than the one above it, because it packs everything into a more balanced frame, linked together by the continuation of the giant necklace.

I think I found the best viewpoint for taking the shot. The window was mostly in shade, but I was standing in sunlight, so I needed to be careful with the exposure. The complex reflections of the high balustrade at the top of the image add hugely to the composition.

Slightly Unnerving
Sometimes, the photo which results from taking a self-reflection can be a bit unnerving, deliberately so in the final shot (below).

classic tailoring shop

I came across a Bangkok tailor’s shop (“classic tailoring with a touch of finesse”) that had a large mirror covering the wall at the back. This mirror turned the top-hatted dummy at the front into a giant silhouette. He seems menacing, doesn’t he? Maybe I seem menacing, too, but it was one of those high-pollution days and I was still wheezing after recovering from a virus infection.

If you look closely at the image you can see a person inside, watching video. I’m not sure if many people ever look close enough to spot such things as a sneakered foot and the back of a head when both are in deep shade, but in this case they all add to the mystery, even if you’re only dimly aware of them.

Alas, in this shot I’m not as neatly dressed as Vivian Maier and I doubt if she ever wore a mask. Maybe I should have gone inside for a bit of tailoring with a touch of finesse.

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