Vivian Maier in Quebec, Part 1

Vivian Maier was a street photographer who worked in obscurity from the 1950s until she died at 83 in 2009. Her work was “discovered,” quite literally, only days before her death, and since then much has been written about her and it. If you’re not familiar with the story, this roughly ten minute video from WTTW in Chicago (via YouTube) provides a nice overview:

Vivian Maier, street photographer and nanny (YouTube).

I first heard about Vivian Maier in late 2010. John Maloof, who discovered her work, had been scanning and posting images to a blog he created to show the work, and was also showing it on Flickr in one of the street photography discussion groups. The Flickr group and other street photography online communities were abuzz with excitement over the discovery.

Maier’s work is held in two different collections; one owned by Maloof and the other by art collector Jeffrey Goldstein, both of Chicago. Prints have been making the rounds of various galleries in the United States and Europe, and in early 2011 came word that a book would be published from Maloof’s collection. I pre-ordered the book the second it showed up on Amazon. It finally arrived in early December.

I was worried about the quality of the reproductions, as John Maloof is a real estate agent, not a fine art curator nor an expert in scanning and reproduction technologies. Fortunately he’s young, seems very determined, and appears to be a fast learner. The book is gorgeous, and the scans and reproductions are beautiful.

A few days after the book arrived, Martine was looking through it and she noticed the writing on some signs in one image were in French. This was a bit odd, as the vast majority of Maier’s work that has been shown thus far (which is only a small percentage of the total body of work) is from New York and Chicago. But it is known that she traveled, and that she had family in France. We looked again at the image and it was obvious that the architecture was very North American. That could mean only one thing: Vivian Maier had been to Montreal!

©Vivian Maier, from Vivian Maier Street Photographer (2011 PowerHouse Books)
©Vivian Maier, from Vivian Maier Street Photographer (2011 PowerHouse Books).

Or not. It turns out I was wrong. Or to be precise, I was wrong in thinking the photograph had been taken in Montreal. All of my attempts to locate the setting of the photograph came up empty. The scene looked like it could be along rue St-Jacques or even Notre-Dame, but the buildings didn’t seem familiar. I did historical research on the few recognizable business names, to no result.

Then it hit me: Montrealer that I am, I had fallen into the trap of thinking that all of Quebec (and thus, the world) revolves around Montreal. I kicked myself in the butt and started researching Quebec City. It took about five minutes to locate the scene as being on rue du Roi, between rue de la Couronne and rue Dorchester. That’s the street that runs along the north (i.e., back) side of the Bibliothèque Gabrielle-Roy in the working-class, rapidly-turning-hipster neighbourhood of Saint-Roch.

To find the location I searched for information about “Turcotte Letourneau,” the easiest to read business sign in the photograph. That lead me to a picture of a business card for Turcotte & Létourneau Ltée from the late 1950s in the PatrimoineQc Flickr stream. A Google Street View search of that address immediately followed.

The scene looks very different now. The fenced-in lot where the people are playing ball has been replaced by the exit ramp from the library’s underground parking. Everything in the foreground has been replaced by bus and loading zones for the library itself, which opened in 1983.

Most of the buildings on the far side of the street – including the Turcotte & Létourneau one – are gone, replaced by a large hotel that extends all the way east to the corner of rue de la Couronne. The hotel opened in 1987.

I looked for some visual cues to verify the location and I found two. The first is the building at the left of the Maier image with the barber shop at the ground level and an array of six square windows on the upper two floors. That building is still there and can be seen in Street View. It hasn’t changed much. The sash windows have been replaced by single panes and the barber pole is gone, but otherwise it’s clearly the same building:

The Street View view, April 2009.
The Street View view, April 2009.

(Update: the building has since been demolished; it is no longer there in Street View’s image from 2012.)

You can see part of that building with the sashes intact in this 1981 photo of the hole being dug for the bibliothèque. Look on the right edge of the image; you can see two of the windows, as well as the little rinky-dink Hotel Dahlia that still exists just to the left of the building. (The photo in the link is from the Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America’s article on the rebirth of Saint-Roch.)

Side-by-side comparison.
Side-by-side comparison.

The other point of verification is farther down the street (to the right) on the other side of rue de la Couronne. In the Maier photograph you can see a two story building, whitewashed on the ground floor with a brick facade on the second floor. You can see a sign written in script but you can only read the last three letters, “nie.” The giveaways are the distinctive corner window on the second floor and the ground-floor corner entrance. The building with that window is still there; it houses Restaurant Saigon Bangkok.

April 2009 vs. circa 1950-something.
April 2009 vs. circa 1950-something.

This is all very fascinating on multiple levels. As not much is known about Vivian Maier and her life, information about her travels is sketchy.


According to Martine’s research, Vivan Maier was in Canada at least twice, once in 1951 and again in 1955. A confusing aspect of her photograph is the building to the right of Turcotte & Létourneau, which is clearly marked “1952 EDIFICE HARNOIS.” That is confusing because Martine’s research indicates Maier was in Quebec in 1951 but she could find no specific evidence of Quebec being on the itinerary for the 1955 trip. It’s also confusing because the building marked “1952” seems to be of a much older style that would be build that year.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about all this, at least for me and Martine, is on a purely personal level. Martine is very familiar with that street, as that neighbourhood is where, as a girl, she and her mother would do the weekly shopping, and where she’d hang out with her friends. Later, as a CEGEP and then university student, she worked part-time at the Bibliothèque Gabrielle-Roy for several years.

You can tell by the cars in the scene that the Vivian Maier photo was most likely taken in the mid-1950s, long before Martine was born. But Martine’s parents and her uncles and aunts were around then. We’re wondering if there are other photographs from that trip in which a member of Martine’s family might be visible. Given the thousands of yet unscanned and unpublished photographs in the archive, it’s a fun idea to hang onto, but not one to hold our breaths over.

Also see: Vivian Maier in Quebec, Part 2.

Update 1: I have found the location of a second Vivian Maier photo taken in Quebec City.

Update 2: According to a friend’s father, who has been working on Ford cars since the 1950s, one of the cars visible in the rue de Roi photo is either a 1952 or 1953 model, based on the chrome trim. That implies this photo could not have been taken during Maier’s 1951 trip.

References and further reading:

Street Scene: Montreal and Beyond

It’s 2011, so the natural thing to do is launch a new photo blog! Announcing Street Scene: Montreal and Beyond, a new street photography blog from yours truly.

I know you’re all just boiling over with questions, so I have put together this handy FAQ to handle all your WTFs.

Street Scene FAQ

Q: Where are all the faces?

A: Street Scene grows out of an earlier experiment called From the Hip – Montreal, which was an exercise in street photography that purposely excluded people’s faces from the images. The reason for doing so is based in Aubry vs. Editions Vice Versa, a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that essentially makes it illegal to photograph people in Quebec without their permission. You can read a bit more about that on From the Hip‘s About page.

Street Scene re-uses many of the images from From the Hip – Montreal but removes the prohibition against visible faces. (I do this at my own risk.)

Q: Yeah, but where are all the faces?

A: Even though Street Scene is free of the “no faces” rule, that doesn’t mean it will be all about faces. Typically, the subject of street photography is people, and the context is their urban environment. Street Scene flips that. The subject of Street Scene is the urban environment, and the context is the people within it.

Q: So are you going to start shoving your camera in people’s faces?

A: Hardly. My predominant technique will still be “clandestine” and from the hip. But I’m not going to worry about including faces, and when the situation calls for it I’ll be as forward and unclandestine as any other street photographer.

Q: Why are some of the pictures blurry?

A: Street Scene is my personal view of the urban environment and the people in it. Sometimes that view is fuzzy, such as when the photograph is taken at night, in low light. This is not some exercise in image clarity or pixel peeping. This is a personal, subjective, and sometimes fuzzy view that I hope some people will find familiar, startling, or evocative.

Q: How often will you post photos?

A: At launch time (January 2011) I have several dozen images that I want to post, and will do so over the following months. After that I’ll post ’em as I make ’em. Bear in mind that my “from the hip” technique has a very high failure rate, and I’m not prolific in the conventional style. Weeks may pass without an update. And in winter this will be a virtual dead zone, as I don’t walk around with my camera in my un-gloved hands when it’s -20.

Q: Are you the only person doing this?

A: Not at all. There are many active street photographers, including some who shoot from the hip, such as Joe Wigfall (Flickr photostream, YouTube interview about shooting from the hip). Other personal favorites include Magnus Fröderberg (Sweden) and Alex Coghe (Rome/Mexico).

Q: How long will it take before you cash in?

A: HA HA HA HA!!! In the entire history of photography, the number of people who have “cashed in” on street photography can be counted on one hand. A few more than that have found a bit of fame (primarily in the “golden age” of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s), but hardly anyone has made any appreciable money at it. Street photography – especially in the digital age – is something you do entirely for artistic and expressive reasons, and for fun. There ain’t no money in it.

Q: OMG where’s the HDR?

A: Shut the fuck up and read this.

Q: Who are your main influences in photography?

A: The long list is endless and is based more on individual images than the photographers behind them. But there is a short list, and all of the people on it are from well before the digital age. The short list includes:

Sharp observers will notice that not all of these artists are street photographers. In fact, a bunch of them are from the New Topographics landscape photography movement of the 1970s. The New Topographics did and does have a strong influence on how I think about photography, as do those photojournalists and street photographers.

As you might imagine, you could hardly find two more disparate styles in photography than New Topographics and street photography. That’s a bit like combining Strauss waltzes and death metal, or rococco painting with abstract expressionism. But that’s what moves me so that’s what I’m stuck with. I’m formally a mess, but hopefully some of the photos on Street Scene will make a bit of sense anyway.

For a peek at a few of my New Topographics inspired images that are not at all “streety,” check out the Monday Morning Photo Blog, under the tag “new-topographics.”

Cleaning Up J.D. Salinger

The subtitle of this post, if there were one, would be “Why I’ll Never Write that Novel, # 132.”

A few weeks ago, Hollywood screenwriter Shane Salerno, who is working on a documentary about J.D. Salinger, released a low resolution image of what he called a “never seen before” photograph of the famously reclusive late writer. The fact that the released version was low resolution (the one making the rounds on the web was roughly 580 x 590 pixels) was perfectly understandable. After all, if it’s such a rare image, you don’t necessarily want to release it to the digital wolves. What bugged me is that Salerno released a scan of the crappy, unrestored image.

Naturally, my impulse was to fix it. So I did. I spent a bit of time (not nearly as much as you’d think, given the low resolution) restoring the image. OK, let’s be up-front; I spent about 20 minutes on this restoration. If I had a high-resolution version I would have probably spent a day or two on it, and wouldn’t have done nearly as good a job as a master like Ctein would have done. But that’s not the point. The point is that if you find an old “never seen” photograph of a famously reclusive famous person, the least you could do is clean it up before you show it off. Showing the dirty version is like coming down to dinner in yesterday’s underwear.

So I cleaned it up. I’ll present to you an even lower resolution version below, as proof. I will say here and now that I have no intention of doing anything with this cleaned up picture except maybe looking at it now and then and feeling smug. If you happen to be Shane Salerno, or Shane Salerno’s lawyer, then bugger off, there’s nothing to see here. This tiny image constitutes fair usage, and I have no intention of usurping your right to show us the shitty version, nor of making any money off of my improved one.

Left: shitty. Right: Blorky.

That was last week’s procrastination. Today I made BBQ chicken & ribs with two different sauces, and reduced half a bushel of Roma tomatoes down to a medium-sized pot of pomodoro sauce for tomorrow’s dinner. When I retire, have my stomach removed, and divorce myself from the Internet, then maybe I’ll write that novel.

Against HDR

June 26th is International HDR Day. HDR refers to “High Dynamic Range” a style of photography in which several different exposures of a single scene – usually one under-exposed, one normally exposed, and one over-exposed – are combined into a single image that supposedly shows all the shadow detail without any blown highlights. The software that creates the combined image uses the darkened highlights from the under-exposure, the lightened shadows from the over-exposure, and the normal tones from the normal exposure to create the resulting “high dynamic range” image. If left there, this technique has some potential to be interesting. But most people making HDR images can’t leave it at that; they have to add a heavy dose of tone mapping to exaggerate the effect. Most of the time the result looks something like this:

(cc) Slack12 on Flickr.

Many people really love these HDR images. Similarly, many people love paintings on black velvet. I know what I’m about to say will insult and enrage many people, but it is my opinion that  HDR photographs are the black velvet paintings of our day.

Unicorn Comb-over, as seen at the Velveteria.

HDR technology – which has become easier to use in the past few years due to Photoshop plug-ins and other inexpensive software – has the potential to be very useful in photography. Experienced photographers understand how hard it can be to work in high contrasty situations like an afternoon at the beach or mid-day at the medina. You have to choose between showing the sunlit parts and having the shadow areas lost to blackness, or showing the shadowy parts and having everything else lost to whiteness. We are forced into this dichotomy because of the limited dynamic range (the range of light in which we can see details) of film and digital camera sensors, and of the human eye.

Along comes HDR to solve that! Now you can can show that sunny beach and see the beauties hiding in the shadows of their umbrellas. You can show the sunlit streets and colorful awnings of the market and see the grinning vendors holding up their wares. And while you’re at it, why not crank up the tone mapping so it ends up looking like you were on acid and over-dosing on neon highlighters while you’re at it? It sounds wonderful in theory, and in some cases (such as when the tone mapping is skipped) it works in practice. But those cases are rare.

I’m certainly not opposed to photographic manipulation, particularly when it comes to nudging and tweaking exposure and contrast to make the image look its best. But I don’t like it when the effect becomes stronger than the image itself.

Overdoing it much?

To apply HDR processing to a photograph is like putting on makeup. It’s very easy to go too far, to put on too much. If an actor were to step off a Broadway stage and head out into the afternoon light still wearing their stage makeup, they’d look like a freak. That doesn’t stop some regular, non-actor folks from painting it on with a roller and presenting themselves to the world like that. And we all gawk. Aside from Broadway, the purpose of makeup is to enhance and bring out the person’s natural beauty. If you see the makeup, then the person is wearing too much. If you see the HDR effect, then the photographer is Photoshopping too much.

As well as the over-processed look of most HDR images, I’m also annoyed by the fact that so many HDR practitioners hone in on a very narrow and highly clichéd catalog of subjects. Typically, an eye-popping HDR image shows:

  • A beach scene with crazy swirling clouds overhead.
  • A super wide-angle view of the facade of a building, receding towards the horizon, under crazy swirling clouds.
  • A super wide-angle view of a decrepit old car, truck, or bus, often in tall grass, under crazy swirling clouds.
  • A super wide-angle close up of a shiny motorcycle (no room for the crazy swirling clouds).
  • A cityscape, often at twilight, usually under a dark blue sky marked with garish halos around the tall buildings.

There you have it. The standard HDR repertoire. Not unlike the standard black velvet painting repertoire of Elvis, Jesus, naked ladies, and unicorns.

Then there are the technical problems I see with most HDR images (and by “technical” I mean purely visual elements that have nothing to do with the subject matter). These are:

  • The highly exaggerated color saturation effects are phoney-looking, garish, and ugly.
  • The light and dark halos that you see around any edge where light meets dark – such as where a roof meets a sky – make the images look weird, distorted, and phoney. It screams “too much makeup HDR!”
  • Tone mapping often makes the image look like a processing error has occurred. Why are you showing me a reject?
  • When you look at HDR images up close (for example, if you look at the “original size” version on Flickr) you often see an a lot of blur, weird chromatic aberration effects, and overall technical ugliness.

If you don’t read much on photography, you might not be aware that there’s a bit of a battle going on between those who favor HDR and those who are against it. I hereby plant my standard on that battleground; I am against HDR.

Not against all HDR, but decidedly against the HDR images that suffer from the problems I’ve mentioned. That means about 98% of HDR images.

(cc) Paulo Barcellos. This HDR image is gorgeous (and rare!). Not over-processed, and not tone-mapped to death. Click here to see it larger on Flickr.

I am not against the technology or the technique; they provide a mechanism for coaxing both high- and low-range detail out of a single image, something that’s been very difficult to achieve in the 150 year history of photography. My problem lies in the way that most practitioners of HDR become too enamored with the technology and go too far with it. They apply too much HDR effect to otherwise good images, and they seek out images (oh, those old buses and cars!) where they can crank up the HDR whether they need it or not.

I should end by adding that I’ve actually seen black velvet paintings that I liked. They were good despite being painted on black velvet, not because of it. And I’ve seen some HDR photos that were spectacular. But few. Very, very few.

Further reading: