Travelogue: Following in Vivian Maier’s footsteps, my trip to Chicago

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Traditionally when I go away on holiday, I tend to pick the less touristy places. That way I can get a better feel for a country and its people. So why Chicago? All I can say is, I was persuaded by Vivian Maier’s photographs when she lived and worked in Chicago as a nanny.

Before I left my native Britain, I did some research about carrying film through customs. Basically, you are fine if the film speed is lower than ISO 800. Keep it in your hand luggage and if you really want, you can ask for a visual check, telling them it is photographic film.

As I was going for nine days, I thought two rolls per day would be plenty. I took twenty-one. Don’t ask. At the time I justified it but did feel sorry for the customs officer having to visually check all twenty-one canisters.

On this trip, I took my trusty Nikon F2 with the 50mm f/1.4. It’s a brick of a camera but it’s so reliable and I love using it.

To keep the price of the holiday down I went for a hotel close to O’Hare airport. Which meant that to get into the heart of the city, I used the train network. This is fine until you get stuck waiting for a freight train to pass, or several. I’m sure there are a lot of American readers nodding sagely at this point. Then I would spend the rest of each day wandering around on foot, mostly exploring downtown.

It was while on the train heading to Union Station, that I had a conversation with a conductor. The thing about wearing an old film camera around your neck is that it draws people. Perhaps they want to tell you of a relative that once owned something similar. Or maybe they don’t understand why you’d use a film camera when a phone or DSLR works just as well. In this case, he wanted to know what photos I intended to take.

An innocent enough question that has many answers and even more responses. I explained that I shoot street photography and that I look for the beauty in the every day. From what I recall, he did a mental shake of the head and wandered off to do his job. I still wish he could see the photo I took of him doing just that.

Following in Vivian Maier's footsteps - Conductor
Following in Vivian Maier’s footsteps – Conductor

If you don’t know much about Chicago, I can tell you one of its unique features is the ‘L’ train network. Some of which is directly above the street. This creates an interesting situation on sunny days. You must be careful moving from bright sunlight to underneath the tracks. There is at least a two-stop difference. On the other hand, being up high does mean it catches the light beautifully.

Most of the time the weather was either sunny or overcast. The mid-autumn sun meant that it shone directly down the wide streets and cast long shadows. Overcast weather on the other hand, can be tricky for us street photographers as it usually means that nothing is happening.

Saying that, on my first afternoon, I heard a noise in the distance. Getting closer I found what could best be described as three marching or sports bands playing off against each other. A street photographer’s dream. I can tell you I had a lot of fun getting in close and getting the shot. At one point I was probably a little too close!

For me, these events encapsulate the beauty of street photography. You could be pounding the streets for weeks on end. Then you are rewarded for your efforts by a spontaneous event and it makes it all worth-while.

The rest of the time slipped by and I had several rolls ready to develop. I was feeling good, but I was missing something: street photography at night. And so, one night I grabbed my camera, dropped in a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400, and off I went.

Using my usual method of shooting by instinct, I walked out of the door of the hotel, down one side of the street, across the road and then back again. Simple. Was it a lot of fun? Yup. Would I do it again, yes, but running across a six-lane road probably wasn’t the best idea I’ve had.

As you will have noticed, there is one photo that had to be included. I call it ‘Perseverance’. The writer must have known that’s not how you spell tyre (or tire) but they went with it anyway.

During my time in Chicago, I found a great market that would have been perfect for street photography. The French market in Ogilvie station. Alas, it was either devoid of people or far too busy. That and I’m always acutely aware of taking photos on private property. But I did get a shot in the main concourse which I feel that all it is lacking is someone walking in the distance.

Following in Vivian Maier's footsteps - French market
Following in Vivian Maier’s footsteps – French market

On one of my last trips into Chicago, I happened across what seemed like a PR stunt for the Chicago police. Twelve of them were on horseback. Now if you ever see police horses in London, they are intimidating due to their size. This was on a smaller scale and following them around town meant I got some interesting shots there as well. You do have to be careful though, once your subject knows you are following them, you lose the magic of the candid image.

And so, with nine rolls of exposed film (eight ILFORD FP4 and one Tri-X), I headed home. And what a lovely day that was developing all that film. It rounded off a great holiday.

For me the purpose of street photography is to capture the essence of the people and the place. With these images, I think I have barely scratched the surface. Would I go back again? That is very likely. It feels like there is so much I haven’t explored.

The Chicagoans I met on my travels I found to be warm, open and honest. Americans tend to be a lot easier to take photos of, which makes my job a whole lot easier.

~ James

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