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Vivian Maier (1926-2009)

What makes a photograph great? What draws us to look again and again? What is it we see that fascinates us so?

These are the kinds of questions that haunt me, because they speak to the human condition, what makes us human, what inspires us and sets us on fire. Why we are drawn to some things, why do they whisper to us in a way that makes us feel that as if we could only ferret this out we will have drawn aside some mysterious veil that hides the secrets of our soul from us.

I want to get to the bottom of these things, to understand what excites me and why–in art, in music, in literature, in the simple objects that I find in my house that give me such pleasure when I look at them, take them in.

Where does this pleasure come from? Why am I drawn to look deep inside this mirror?

The photograph above by Vivian Maier fascinates me. Her story is fascinating as well. Maier is considered one of the finest photographers of our age, yet she was unknown in her lifetime. Her photographs of city life, thousands of them, were found after her death, as negatives, never developed, never printed. Yet it’s not her story that draws me to this photo. It stands by itself as an object of art, a moment forever stilled in time for our rapt attention.

I suppose what first captures the eye is the stunning beauty of the woman, like an Aphrodite of old captured in stone. We are drawn toward beautiful things, no matter what their nature: a woman, a man, a child, a sunset, a spectacular cathedral.

But there is so much more to this photo that captures and holds our gaze, that makes it exciting and evocative and a pleasure to look at, than the mere beauty of the woman’s face. There’s also the expression on her face, the sideways glance, the downward gaze, the dark arching eyebrows and melancholy mouth. Those eyes. There’s a mysterious Mona Lisa appeal that makes us look with wonder at her: who is she, what is she thinking, where is she going? We have some clues, and these too comprise in part what makes this photo so fascinating.

Behind her is an imposing edifice slightly out of focus, a courthouse I’m guessing, with steps leading down to the street, as if she has just vacated that space.  The strong central column leads directly to her, the soft pale gray stone in direct contrast with her shining dark hair. While the sharper, horizontal lines of the near stairs behind her also point provocatively toward her. She is caught at the apex of their meeting.

Surrounding her (almost like a parenthesis to enhance her significance) are the elderly women moving past and leaning toward her with their bent backs and grey heads. They too are slightly out of focus. Passersby in motion contrasting with her stark startling stillness.

Below her is a streak of white, slantwise and mysterious, a ghostly blur. It appears she is standing in the middle of the street, or perhaps on the curb, and the photographer is viewing her from the open window of a passing vehicle. That blur, that streak of passing time across her breast, of swift motion, contrasts sharply with her stillness and the sharp, clean details that freeze her in time: The pearl necklace and earring; the wings of her wide collar framing her face; the sharp, delicate sculpture of her collar bones; the dark hollow of her throat and gentle curve of her jaw; the feathering of the dark eyelash silhouetted against the white stone behind her.

She is a study of stillness against the motion that surrounds her, and without that surrounding motion, without all those revealing contrasts and details, she would not appear so alluring, nor would this photograph be so fascinating. Without all the lines leading toward her, framing her, setting her apart from all else; without her face being set like a polished diamond within the gray softness surrounding her; without that stunning stillness caught within a blur of motion, like a second in time frozen for all eternity, this photograph would lose its fascination. For me at least.

There’s poetry in this photograph, rhythm, rhyme, music. It speaks profoundly on the eternal nature of beauty and its fragility within a timescape that erases the very thing it  evolves. Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn, Shelley’s Hymn to Beauty speak no more eloquently to that theme than this single image does.

There’s tenderness here, love, compassion, heartbreak and pathos, as well as a beauty beyond knowing, beyond time. Something we feel deeply and speaks movingly to what it means to be human shrouded in so much mystery. And that’s what I find so fascinating. How a single image, flashed on the fly, can capture all that.