The (once) hidden art of street photographer Vivian Maier

By Caitlin Kelly

20120415141416My photo, not hers!

Have you seen the terrific documentary “Finding Vivian Maier”?

I finally saw it, and it’s an amazing true story of a French woman who spent most of her life working as a nanny for wealthy Chicago families, all the while shooting film and video, as — self-described — “a sort of spy.”

She lived in a tiny French town and in New York City in earlier years, but mostly lived in her employers’ homes as a way to live more frugally and to partake in family life. She never married or had children of her own and, it seems, was not at all close to her own family.

The film traces her history and interviews many of the people who knew her, from the children she cared for (and sometimes poorly) to their parents to a few of her friends. She was intensely private, insisting that everywhere she lived there were multiple locks on the door to her room.

And it all started with an auction, when the film-maker, John Maloof, bought a box of negatives:

After John Maloof purchased his first home and pursued a career in real estate in 2005, he began to get more involved in the community where he lived. He delved heavily into historic preservation and eventually became the president of the local historical society on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Given that this part of the city is often ignored, he came to believe that by writing a book on the neighborhood, he could work to promote awareness of its often overlooked charm. It was this decision to co-author the book Portage Park that would change his life forever.

The publisher required approximately 220 high-quality vintage photos of the neighborhood for the book. To gather enough images for this project, John and his co-author, Daniel Pogorzelski, were forced to look everywhere for any old photographs good enough to make the cut. The result was a nearly year-long scavenger hunt where they followed lead after lead to compile the pictures needed for the book. It was during this process that John visited a local auction house, RPN, to see if by chance, they would have any material for the book up for auction. Sure enough, he found a box of negatives depicting Chicago in the 60’s. Unable to get a thorough look at its contents, he took a gamble and purchased the box for around $400.

As someone who began her career as a photographer, and whose husband is a career photographer and editor, this story was even more compelling to me. Her images are truly extraordinary, and also now for sale — how sad and ironic that this has happened only after her death.

But Vivian’s story also intrigues me because we know someone personally whose trajectory is somewhat similar — a single European woman who nannied for wealthy families and who is also an artist. Even her first name initial is the same.

If you haven’t watched the film or seen any of Maier’s photos, I urge you to take a look.

Powerful stuff — and a sad, mysterious and memorable story.

No can do — sorry!

I never used to say no.

When you work freelance, you memorize the phrase “No problem!” when asked to tackle something you’ve never done in your life but pays. If you say no to everything outside your comfort zone, you’ll starve. Nor will you grow your skills and client list.

So when an editor suddenly emailed me with a 24-hour turnaround — to profile Bruce Heyman, nominated as the U.S.’s new ambassador to Canada — I said O.K. The money was awful, $600 for 1,200 words. But I figured I could do it within five or six hours, and keep my usual rate of $100+/hour.

But, within two hours of starting work on it, I called the editor, (a former colleague in Canada,) and said: “Nope. Not going to happen. Sorry.”

Why?

— I called Goldman Sachs, where Heyman works. I emailed and called several PR people there, using sources shared by a Wall Street reporter who’s a friend of a friend, explaining my urgent deadline. I could tell this was not a priority. The PR woman called me back at 5:00 p.m. that day — a mere eight hours after my initial call.

— The one live person I got at Goldman in PR kept saying “I don’t know him. I just got off a plane from Brazil.” Chill, dude.

English: Goldman Sachs Tower, Jersey City, New...
English: Goldman Sachs Tower, Jersey City, New Jersey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— I started Googling Heyman. He likes to drink green tea. That was about the extent of it. Not a good sign.

— I started calling the University of Chicago to reach former White House staffer David Axelrod, since Heyman is a big Obama fundraiser. After five mis-directed calls, I was told that the university has no public relations department (!?). I was told  they’ve never heard of him or the policy institute there he is supposed to be heading.

Senior advisor David Axelrod during a meeting ...
Senior advisor David Axelrod during a meeting in the Oval Office, May 29, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— I started looking at the names of his fellow Chicago-area fundraisers. Billionaires, every one. Would they take a call from some Canadian wire service freelancer? As if.

I weighed the stress and bullshit of chasing all these people all day long — for $600 for a story no one I know in the States would read. Not worth it.

The editor was grateful I let her know right away.

Have you ever ditched a paying gig, and quickly?

How did it turn out?

Happy July 4th! How My Great-Grandfather Louis Brought Me To The U.S.

There are families who lovingly and carefully preserve not only their memories, but all the artifacts of their ancestors. Not ours. I had seen a few photos and never got to meet either grandfather.

The very little I knew of my great grandfather, Louis M. Stumer, was a brochure for an office building in Chicago, the North American Building, in which he was an investor at the turn of the century.

With the Fourth of July coming up, and the recent renewal of my green card after 22 years of living in the U.S., I Googled him recently. I wanted to learn some more about the man, and found an eerie set of coincidences. I’m a journalist — he published two successful literary magazines, The Red Book and the Blue Book. I just finished writing a book about the retail industry and discovered that he owned or co-owned one of several prominent Chicago stores of the era.

I even found a photo of his mausoleum, the one to which my mom holds the key.

A photo of his wife, swooning in a theatrical tableau, from a 1907 image in the Chicago Daily News, may explain my occasional penchant for drama.

As I was growing up, Louis was only an initial, S, the middle of my grandmother’s monograms. The man was a total mystery. He was Jewish and Republican; I’m neither.

From a newsletter of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society:

While mail order remains Rosenthal’s chief claim to fame, he was also active in other enterprises. Together with his partners, Eckstein and Stumer, he was involved in such ventures as clothing and millinery establishments, restaurants, and drugstores. Emporium World Millinery was one of their largestventures. The partners also owned and managed real estate properties, and even had success as magazine publishers (The Red Book and The Blue Book).

(The Red Book sold a fairly astonishing 338,5000 copies in 1906 — according to a piece about Chicago publishing I found in the American Journal of Sociology from 1906. Much to Easterners’ annoyance, these upstart Midwestern publishers gave New Yorkers a run for their money.)

The real estate group built on and owned by the Chicago Board of Education, on 99-year leases dating from 1890. The flagship property was the North American Building at 36-44 South State Street, a 19-story office building with many tenants, most of them wholesalers. Benjamin Rosenthal’s office was located in this building. The seven-story Emporium Building at 26-28 South State was occupied for many years by the Miller-Wohl Company, retailers of ladies’ ready-to-wear. The Mercantile Building at 10-14 South State was leased by the S.S. Kresge Company for its own use.

I wish I could have met him. He was clearly a driven, shrewd businessman, and learning these details helps better explain why my maternal grandmother was such a grande dame.

Born and raised in Canada, I always found my American relatives — and their astonishing self-confidence (Canadians hate that!)  — intriguing. I always wondered who they were and what shaped them and how they affected, or didn’t, their own communities of the era.

My new green card arrived this week. It is now really green, with a Statue of Liberty and my photo, this time not in color but sort of a ghostly black and white. My signature is on it below my photo, and my birth date floats above my head in an odd, receding wave. It’s also got my thumb-print. It’s good for another ten years.

Thanks to Louis’s grand-daughter, my mother, who passed on her American citizenship to me to acquire the green card, I get to live in the U.S. — and celebrate the 4th. in his country.

What have you learned about your grand or great-grandparents that took you by surprise?

Answering Questions Without A Clue — Aka Male Answer Syndrome

Personification of knowledge (Greek Επιστημη, ...
A statue of knowledge...boy or girl? Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a phrase new to me — although certainly not the behavior it describes — male answer syndrome. This weekend, the NPR show On The Media will examine this habit of answering a question with great certainty even when you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Girls and women generally don’t do this. Most of us loathe looking stupid. We also learn the odds are good that when a woman speaks out loud and clear she’s going to be ignored, shouted down or challenged — depending how testosterone-soaked the atmosphere. So before you open your mouth, you want to be fairly sure you know what the hell you are talking about. Fact-checking on your Blackberry mid-sentence, in my view, is lame.

The point of confidence is putting it out there and seeing what happens. The underlying assumption — am I right? (she asked in a female sort of way) — is that no one will challenge you if you bluster hard and loudly enough. An air of utter confidence can tend to intimidate many people.

I’ve seen it in its most toxic form, thanks to a con man (ex-felon) I dated a decade ago; “con” is short for “confidence”, both that which they so successfully radiate and cultivating their victims’ crucial confidence in them and their usurious schemes. You don’t reap the harvest without a healthy supply of seeds.

He started out in Chicago, handing out business cards covered in fancy acronyms, pretending to be a doctor. Anyone who actually knew medicine — and he chose his victims carefully — would know in a heartbeat the guy was a total liar. But so persuasive was his act that he got a local sports car dealership to send over (!) a vehicle on approval, got a bunch of women to agree to marriage thanks to the glittering CZ he slapped on their gullible fingers, then moved to New York and started all over again, this time pretending to be a lawyer.

From its first iteration, a piece by Jane Campbell in Details, 1991:

ut Male Answer Syndrome (MAS) is by no means harmless, as my friend Pauline discovered at the age of 8. She had found that eating icecream made her teeth hurt and asked her father if Eskimos had the same problem. “No”, he said. “They have rubber teeth”. Pauline repeated this information in a geography lesson and found herself the laughing stock of the class. That was how she learned that a man, even if he is your own father, would rather make up an answer than admit to his own ignorance.

Later in life women run into the same problem: Men can speak with such conviction that women may be fooled into thinking that they actually know what they are talking about.

A woman who finds herself in the midst of an impassioned argument about glasnost may suffer from an eerie sense of displacement. Has a weird time-space warp landed her in the Kremlin? No, she’s in the mailroom with Dave and Bob, who she knows for a fact read only the sports pages.

My friend Jeff (he of the Harley) is full of expertise on subjects as diverse as global warming and Elvis’ current whereabouts. In reality however, he is an expert at only one thing: making a little knowledge go a very long way. For him answering is a game, and not knowing what he is talking about just adds to the thrill.

Expressing skepticism can be highly inflammatory. Even mild-mannered Abe Lincoln types may react to “Are you sure about that?” as a vicious slur on their manhood and find themselves backing up a ludicrous assertion with spurious facts.

It took me a while to notice a variation of this pattern, most evident in my ex-husband, a medical student when we met and who became a psychiatrist. When he didn’t know the answer to something, he’d say, “I’m not sure.” He was sure, all right. He didn’t want to admit ignorance, so the dreaded words “I don’t know” never passed his lips, at least in his private life. While few patients want their doctor to say “I don’t know”, it’s a useful phrase when it’s actually true.

“Are we out of milk?” is a fairly safe question, for example. A simple yes or no would suffice.

Gentlemen, is this part of your verbal repertoire?

Ladies, what do you do, if anything, in the face of it?

Fashion Advice From A 13-Year-Old?

Front (Sixth Avenue) entrance of Spring 2009 N...
New York Fashion Week. Image via Wikipedia

Of course you’ve heard of Tavi Gevinson, darling!

How many tweens have their own Wikipedia entry already — for blogging about fashion since they were 11? Not to mention she’s a muse (before puberty?) for Rodarte, one of the edgier fashion labels out there.

She appeared, of  course, at New York Fashion Week, which just ended, her hair (why, dear?) dyed an odd shade of pale blue-gray, the color of hypothermic skin. She lives in a Chicago suburb, but has been profiled in major publications from the Los Angeles Times to Vogue.

But, hey, her blog gets 1.5 million hits a month. Nice work if you can get it!

Feeling Stressed? Johnson & Johnson Offers $39.99/Month On-Line Relaxation

Angry kitty
Image by Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr

How stressed are you feeling today? Would going on-line — as women do 27 hours a week doing non e-email reading — help you chill out?

A new program, with related products, begins this month at upliv.com, $99.95 a month for the first month and $39.95 a month thereafter, starting with a stress analysis test. Reports today’s New York Times:

While some Upliv tips, like relaxing by taking a hot shower or having a cup of herbal tea, are predictable, the company says the overall approach is effective. In an internal study in which 540 women aged 25 to 45 who reported “moderate to high stress levels” were put either on the Upliv program or in a control group, women in the program reported marked improvements, including increased “clear-headedness” and “sleep satisfaction.”

A 30-minute infomercial for the product will run this month in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas and Atlanta.

“Stress is usually one of the biggest causers for headaches and before I started this program I was averaging sometimes about 15 a month,” one participant, Jenny Ford, a teacher and mother of three, says in the infomercial. She said that her headaches had virtually disappeared as a result of the program, and that it had “really improved my marriage, because I’m happier, I have more energy, and I’m not such a drag.”

Another participant, Caroline Jalango, 37, single and a sales associate, tells the interviewer in the infomercial that the program helped her to be “responsible for my well-being — it’s a very powerful tool to me.”

In a telephone interview, Ms. Jalango, who lives in the Riverdale section of the Bronx and participated in a three-month trial in the fall, said that even though it had been a few months since she had had access to the Upliv Web site, “it has become like a lifestyle for me,” and helped her to be less stressful about her job, her family relationships and “being single while my biological clock is ticking.”

For $39.99 a month, I’ll stick to my usual stress-relievers: lots of hot tea, fresh flowers, long walks outdoors, listening to music, talking to friends.

The products offered, with names like Field of Happiness, Ocean of Clarity and Canopy of Tranquility, all sound a little goofy to me. If one could relieve stress by spritzing, send me 200 cases and let me aim it at…most of New York City.

Women, many of whom are socialized to make everyone happy all the time, often need explicit permission to take good care of themselves. Anything that helps them name, and pay consistent self-nurturing attention to, their own needs — not just the endless demands of their partner/husband/kids/job/aging parents/PTA — is a good idea.

"It's Hard To Pull Yourself Up By The Bootstraps When You Don't Have Boots": Great New Doc Opens Today

Keating Hall, Rose Hill, Fordham University.
Image via Wikipedia

For thousands of American students living in poverty, getting into a decent college remains an impossible dream. A new, terrific documentary, The Providence Effect, opens today in New York City, DC (and area), Chicago and Newark, that tells the story of Providence St. Mel, a Chicago legend, a school that for 30 years has sent every single graduate to college. Go see it!

Its unlikely star is principal Paul Adams III who pushes his students, K-12, out of one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods into possibility — 100 percent of its graduates attend college, with more than half attending top-tier and Ivy League institutions. He teaches them to produce and expect only the very best of themselves. Nothing less is accepted.

Adams and his tough-love administrators and teachers offer an extraordinary and consistent brand of discipline. Each morning, every student from the tiniest kids to seniors, recites the school’s motto, a mantra so powerful and moving that grads — the doctors and lawyers who come back years later to visit — can still say it by heart. The kids are funny, touching, honest. We watch one new teacher scolded sharply on-camera. We watch parents sign contracts with the school committing to regular meetings to track their child’s progress.

The soundtrack, by Tom Dumont, of the band No Doubt, is gorgeous.

Producer/director Rollin Binzer said the toughest part of making the film — financed by a Providence St. Mel board member — was “the electric atmosphere of excitement about learning at the school that is more visceral than visual. It was very difficult to capture that.” Binzer, who attended Palm Springs High School, in Palm Springs, CA, said that in making the film he “realized how important leadership and simply caring is in running a successful school. There is an educational crisis in this country that nobody seems to know how to fix.”

The film opens in L.A. October 2, in the Bay area October 16 and in Atlanta October 30.

The headline I used is spoken by one of the students in the film. Like the rest of this movie, it rings true.