If you haven’t seen the movie Midnight in Paris I highly recommend it. I liked it very much. The cinematography, the colors, the story itself, the message in the story are all visual and cerebral treats. If you are interested in technical details, then the movie was filmed on celluloid (film, 35mm) and specifically on Kodak Vision3 200T (5213) and Vision3 500T (5219). You can geek out on more specs here. Now, I cannot cite it without introducing a little spoiler. I hope it is not so big that it will ruin the movie itself. Of course, if you have seen the movie then you know this already and needn’t be concerned. In the movie, Gil, a 21st century writer, is fascinated with a bygone era and meets Picasso’s girlfriend, Adriana, from the 1920s. Adriana, in turn, likes the 1890s. When she meets Gil, she takes him to that time, where they meet the painters Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas. These three, however, are enamored with a time period even further back, the Renaissance. I won’t tell you any more. Woody Allen tells a very nice story and to find out what actually happens, you have to watch the movie.
People from every era think that the past was great and their contemporary times are but a shadow of a greatness long gone. This nostalgia is real and can be found everywhere. Does it mean that the earlier time was truly better? Who knows? After all it is only judged in hindsight. People living in a different time probably did not find it any more romantic than we find our present time. And if we were to go back, perhaps we would find our idols lamenting about some other era in the same way.
The grass is greener on the other side. The grass was greener at an earlier time. It is our romance with the unattainable. We tend to see the past with rose-colored glasses. It is why we like to read old books, watch old movies. They are all portals to the past. Nowadays, everybody has a camera: if you have a mobile phone, you have a camera. And we use this camera to document our present time in a billion ways. There is no mystery, no veil, no unattainability. In contrast, very few people had a camera sixty years ago. And those that did probably used it sparingly: for holidays and portraits, (unless they were professional photographers, of course). Street photography as we know it today didn’t exist then. If you had a camera during the 1950s and if you took a lot of photos, you could be one of very few people doing so. And in doing so you would be recording history on film for posterity to look back on. If these photos came to light fifty years later, it would spark great interest, if for nothing else, then for the sheer fact that they are from a different era and therefore like a time machine. Given our nostalgic nature, even the most mundane content from history would appear sublime and inspired.
Vivian Maier photographed Chicago and New York City (and perhaps many other places) fifty to sixty years ago. She may have continued doing so late into the 2000s but it is her nostalgia inducing photos that get the most praise. Her photos are good no doubt, but we have to ask ourselves if we aren’t looking at the photos in the same way as Gil looks at the 1920s from the movie I described above. Cameras were not common in Maier’s time. Photos of that era are not very common. So when we look at the photos Vivian Maier took, we are not necessarily objectively looking at photos but at photos from a certain time period. And that makes all the difference. They are not poignant, they are not sublime. They are just old. There are possibly hundreds of photographers now who take very similar photos but we dismiss them because they are current, we criticize them as banal and cliché because there are so many of them. If you disagree, tell me which of her photos you like and why.