How Far is Too Far?

Conchita Fernandes

Conchita Fernandes

This article was originally published in June 2017.

Vivian Maier was rather peculiar, but not easy to spot. She was a spy under the disguise of a nanny… a terribly quiet one, who hid under the garb of long, oversized coats and blouses, and who strictly forbade anyone from entering her room. No one knew what she did inside, or what the numerous boxes in her room held. Evidently, she was a hoarder, one who never discarded a single bus ticket or a food bill. Every object that came her way was meticulously collected and stored. Even when she took her employer’s children out for a walk, they were hardly aware of her latent interest… to make pictures. The only witnesses to her actions were the children she took care of. They remembered her camera, and how they struggled to keep up with her long stride; Vivian walked fast. She photographed everything that caught her eye on the streets of New York… Its people, the interiors of dustbins and even herself. She was inseparable from her camera, and towards the end of her life, she had amassed over 100,000 negatives.

When he began documenting the gypsies, Josef Koudelka had already decided that he would lead a nomadic life. While the gypsies retired to their beds at the end of the day, Koudelka slept on the earth, with the stars above him. It didn’t matter that his only possessions were his camera and the clothes on his body. What mattered was that he was able to make the kind of pictures he always wanted to. Everything else was secondary.

For Eugene Atget, nothing was more dear than his beloved Paris. He was so taken in by the beauty of the city that it pained him to see it crumble and transition into modernity. What he did next was spend the following three decades creating an exhaustive visual record of the city. He photographed everything… the architecture, storefronts, street corners, doors and gardens, by lugging his bulky camera, wooden tripod and glass negatives, all over the city. But because his photographs were largely plain and devoid of human presence, it aroused very little curiosity amongst the public. But, “their impact was immediate and tremendous,” mentioned Berenice Abbott. Nothing could stop Atget, and towards the end of his career, he very contentedly mentioned, “I can truthfully say that I possess all of Paris.”

I can’t help but wonder if it was just photography that fueled Vivian’s, Koudelka’s and Atget’s extreme reclusiveness. In the past, Koudelka spoke of his need to constantly move, which he has been doing for more than four decades. “I am interested in seeing. If I stay too long in a place, I will become blind,” he said. Such a stringent resolve to live on the edge has to come from a deeper, curious place… where you push yourself hard enough to a point where it’s just you and your tool, the camera.

So what does it take to harbour such an intense love for something, in this case, photography? How far do we let it consume us? And what are we willing to give up for it? Charles Bukowski had put it stunningly in words… “Find what you love and let it kill you.” I’ve been ruminating over these questions for a while now, and the answer continues to remain elusive, yet so clear.

Tags: better photography, Conchita Fernandes, Cellphone Edit Note, April 2017