A Spy in Their Midst

January 20, 2015

the reader

I have tens of thousands of photographs. They come in all forms and sizes — prints and slides and digital images — stored in shoeboxes and plastic containers and computer files. They are the consequence of five decades of taking pictures of everything imaginable: natural and man-made wonders, creatures great and small, flowers and plants, mundane objects of various shapes or colors or textures, and all manner of oddities that just happened to catch my eye. However, I have taken relatively few photos of people.

The reason is simple. I have always felt uncomfortable invading the privacy of others. A photograph of someone (other than one who is willingly posing) is — at least in my mind — stealing a moment of his or her life and preserving it without consent.

street artist, Rome

street artist

On rare occasions I have taken a chance with those who are not aware of my camera pointed in their direction. The safety of stealthily stolen shots does not much ease my conscience, though, for it still violates the principle.

Sometimes when I walk around in a city, I feel almost invisible and find the boldness to capture a few images of those around me. Much like a spy in their midst, I secretively aim my camera, take the shot, and then make a hasty getaway into the crowd. Every so often, I am caught in the act, and the look on the face of my subject still startles me each time I see it.

boys at play

caught in the act

Even though I have trouble taking them, I very much admire such photos. Somehow the frozen moments of these other lives caught in the act of even the most ordinary activities can be fascinating. But it takes a particular set of skills and personal traits to be able to do so effectively. Few photographers have mastered this art. I envy those who have the ability to capture these sometimes haunting images of others as they inhabit the world around us.

Whenever I go to a museum, I seek out their photos in the exhibition spaces: Weegee, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand. A wealth of common human experience is seen through their lenses and enshrined in perpetuity for the rest of us to observe in wonder.



Vivian Maier was one such photographer. Everywhere she went her camera would be strapped around her neck. She too took thousands of photos — strange photos, wonderful photos, most of them photos of people, children playing and ladies standing on their block and down-and-out men on the street and anyone else that caught her eye and her interest. Hers are brilliant.

This amazing talent remained undiscovered until after her death in 2009. A Chicago man named John Maloof bought boxes of her negatives at an auction. When he began viewing them, they revealed the work of an immensely talented — and totally unknown — photographer. This led him on a journey of discovery to find out who this mysterious person could be.

As it turned out, Vivian Maier lived a strange life, one shrouded in privacy. Serving as a nanny for many different families, she was a recluse, a hoarder, and an eccentric individualist. Watching the documentary Finding Vivian Maier about Maloof’s exploration of her life and art affected me deeply. The same qualities that allowed her to be a great street photographer caused such isolation and loneliness in her personal life. I greatly admire her work, but I am saddened by the troubled soul that was the source of its creation.

In spite of that last fact, she has inspired me to go back into the street to try my hand again at this type of photography. Once when asked what she did, she replied that she was “a kind of spy,” and it is that mindset which I think may be necessary to allow one the permission to engage in this endeavor. So a spy I shall be, and if in doing so I can accomplish a mere fraction of the artistic level she attained, I will be a happy man.

great view

great view



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