August is the month we get to welcome new full-time voices to the post calvin! Please welcome Olivia Harre, who is taking over Catherine Kramer’s spot. Olivia graduated from Calvin in May 2018 with a double major in business (human resources) and writing. She is currently living and working in Grand Rapids but is eager to find a new city and a new adventure.
A few weeks ago, I attended my first ever photography exhibit. In the name of full disclosure, I do not typically attend such events—not because I don’t appreciate photography, but because I don’t feel trendy or knowledgeable enough to blend in with art aficionados.
But there I was, in a room full of art appreciators, pretending I knew something about angles and lighting and depth of field. Thankfully, I soon discovered that in this exhibit, I didn’t have to understand the ins and outs of photography—I just needed to be in tune with my humanity.
The exhibit was a collection of prints taken by Vivian Maier, a little-known photographer who passed away before she had a glimpse of her fame.
Vivian was a loner—a self-proclaimed spy—who was essentially homeless for most of her adult life. She had few living relatives, and hopped between different families, working as a live-in nanny in exchange for room and board. According to people who knew her, Vivian was a mystery woman. She was a pack rat and an obsessive collector, always hidden behind baggy clothes and her camera.
Her photos—though they often capture other people—paradoxically reveal Vivian’s own heart and passions. In her photos, the difficult and humorous realities of city life are presented, stark and unavoidable right there in the frame. Vivian captured people in a way that exposed both the beauty and the complexity of life and how this combination describes a shared human experience.
As I circled the exhibition room, each photo seemed to resonate with me. I felt connected to the people in the photos as my thoughts echoed: “I’ve felt that way too” and “it’s going to be okay” and “I wonder what that’s like.” Of course, I have never met any of the subjects—I don’t know their names or their stories—but for that split second when Vivian clicked the camera shutter, the worlds of a screaming child, an anxious woman, and an indifferent newspaper salesman seem relatable and human.
Vivian’s work is undeniably special, and many have fallen in love with it just as I have. But here’s the catch: Vivian never saw most of her work. Thousands of undeveloped negatives were found stored in boxes of her belongings. She passed away without experiencing the fame and recognition her work is gaining today.
After wandering this exhibit, feeling equal parts moved and intrigued, I began to wonder why Vivian kept taking photos. There were thousands of negatives stored in boxes—thousands of faces and stories and moments captured but never appreciated. So what kept Vivian going?
I hope taking those photos brought Vivian joy—that exercising her creativity was energizing and empowering. Maybe it would have felt inherently wrong for Vivian not to take her photos. It was her way of interacting with and making sense of the world.
And as a writer, what keeps me going? Why do I bother putting my thoughts to paper, when only a few people read what I have to say?
Because the craft of writing brings me joy. Because it helps me process life in all its messy glory. Because it feels wrong not to write.
Vivian was not pursuing fame and status in her photography. She took photos because it was something she had to do, because creativity flowed out of her and became her way of life. Because she had something to say.
Of all the photos at this exhibit, Vivian only cracks a smile in one—one where she captures herself in a moving mirror. I think her sly smile hints that Vivian knew how clever she was. She didn’t need the approval of others to know that her work was impactful and quirky—she just knew. And that was enough.
Olivia graduated from Calvin in May 2018 with a double major in business and writing. She now works as an editor in Nashville, Tennessee and is eating her way through the restaurants of her new town. She enjoys weekend trips with friends, petting other people’s dogs, and drinking coffee like a Gilmore Girl.