The Zen of Undeveloped Film

I was walking around Queens the other day with a camera for the first time in a few weeks and I started to think about all of Vivian Maier’s undeveloped rolls of film, which also brought to mind the stash Winogrand left when he died.  What exactly happened to both of these photographers that made them seemingly not really care about viewing the results of their street work?

It’s nearly impossible to figure out the motivations of another person, so naturally much of this is just speculation. I began to wonder if both simply had some sort of satori moment with their photography, after which they simply found bliss in the act of photographing on the streets and weren’t really concerned with the resulting photographs.

Think about it. You work for years to hone a craft, spend hours wandering around the streets, and then simply leave it at that. You have no idea if what you’re doing is working, nor show a desire to take any sort of pleasure in reflecting on your own work.  To just go out and do it with no concern about viewing the results takes incredible discipline.

In Maier’s case I’m starting to get the impression that she knew she was good and simply wasn’t interested sorting through all the results.  I could see her chuckling to herself thinking about the poor fool who’d have to develop all her film (Sorry John!).

The Flow of Life

Or maybe it was something else. Street photographers tend to be a bit of strange breed, and spending hours myself out shooting I can say that part of the joy is simply being out in the flow of life. Many times the photographs really are just a bi-product of those long walks through the streets. For some, this maybe part of the reason that street photography seems random and unfocussed at times. Well, it is random and unfocussed at times, and I think that’s the way many street photographers prefer it.

It could also be that Maier and Winogrand reached an understanding about the abundance of opportunity that immersing yourself in the flow of life offers.  They probably deeply understood that there were always more photographs to be made. They could go out into the street any day and make new work.  There really was no rush or any need to view certain work as more important than any other. It all came from the same flow of life, which is constant, day after day, year after year.


I tried to think of other creative disciplines where artists never see the results of their efforts. What came to mind was improv. I studied long form improv for a few years and have been an admirer since.  While not exactly like leaving rolls of film undeveloped for years, there are some correlations to improv I think. Essentially improvisers go out and perform each night, and once they’re done, they’ll never see that performance again (unless it’s being recorded of course!).

For improvisers, being in the moment and creating spontaneously is the final product of their efforts.  They aren’t creating art that will be consumed at a later time.

The same can be said of musical improvisation too, especially jazz or hip hop.  How much great music do you think Charlie Parker or Miles Davis made while improvising that was never heard again?

I’ve always felt there was a strong connection between street photography and improv. Blake Andrews touched on this a few weeks in his post about photography and uncertainty.

Photographs which occur in an uncertain environment have an energy that is often lacking in planned images. The purest example is street photography. A street photographer has no idea what he or she will see from one second to the next, and the best street photos feed on that energy.

There are many truisms about living in the moment that we’ve all heard and probably try to live by.  Thinking about Maier and Winogrand and all the work they left behind, I’m left wondering if they truly did enter some sort of state of being where living moment to moment on the street with their cameras became the final product of their efforts, much like the improvisers.

And the photographs, well, they simply probably could never compete with those experiences which is why the rolls piled up and were left for others to sort out, and us to enjoy.

Recommended Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitc

(You can view more on the Vivian Maier story here, where I’ve compiled links and quotes.)

  • Bart

    She didn’t have the money to develop.

  • Shane Steinkamp

    The art of photography is the art of manipulating the machine of the camera.  The resulting photograph is just an artifact of that manipulation.  I appreciate this because I have an old Minolta film camera that I use for hours on end sometimes, but I haven’t actually had any film for it in years.

  • Troy Holden

    And that’s what it’s all about. The longest walk, with camera in hand. Where you empty your pockets upon returning home is inconsequential. 

  • AlanT

    Winogrand wanted a year or two between the shooting and the selecting, so that he was not influenced by remembering how he felt when he shot it.

  • Sparkdog

    If you haven’t seen it, be sure to watch the Banksy movie. There is a point in the film where the idea of shooting just to shoot comes into play. And it’s a pretty darn good movie anyway, full of the tension between fame, creative process, and the art world.

  • blake

    As you say it’s pure speculation why they did what they did. My sense is that for Winogrand (and maybe Maier) it was just a matter of priorities. If you have X amount of time in your life for photography, would you rather spend it on developing/printing or on making new photos? I think for Winogrand, seeing and shooting were what drove him. Looking at prints later was of course essential, but I don’t think he got the same vital kick out of it. Maybe Maier had the same feelings. Who knows. I know in my own photography, as I get increasingly behind on my film I tend to care less and less about it. If I have a few hours free I will use it to shoot more film, not develop what I have even if I have 100 rolls waiting to be developed. Apply this sensibility over the course of a lifetime and you wind up dying with 3000 undeveloped rolls, not out of any grand philosophy but just because that’s how it is. What did HCB say? Hunters aren’t cooks.

  • jacques philippe

    I agree with the connection between improv and street photography…

    Good points. But I think things need to be nuanced.

    That is somewhat shocking to know that Winogrand left about 300K views he never saw, but that probably does not reflect the situation he was into earlier in his career. It is probably true that he was “outran by his own process”, as Michael Murphy put it, but the huge amount of orphan views might have been a very consequence of a late career crisis rather, as evoked by Szarkowski in his essay for book “Figments from the real world”, being like “an overheated engine” with his motorized Leica. But I think that Winogrand had control on his output routine before -which is the same used by Henri Wessel who does not seem to be disinterested in the final print- I don’t think he got disinterested in the final result that fast, because he often said he learned from the photographs he made and talked about his work prints, not to mention that he had strong views on how a good print should look like. So, he might as well needed to see the end result in some way, be it just a contact sheet.

    As far as Vivian Maier is concerned I feel there is too few things we know about her so far. At least we know that she did some prints. She probably could not afford (time wise and money wise) a proper exploitation of her work,, but that does not mean she was not interested. One thing which is often eluded when speaking about VM, as opposed to other well-known street photographers is that she was not a professional photographer. That may sound obvious but from a very practical and day-to-day perspective that changes much. Today we can’t say she was not interested in seeing the final result. It was probably much easier for her to shoot than to have the print done, that is all. Anyway she did some prints, and maybe she showed them, maybe she had bad feedback… The few bits we know about her tend to make us draw a certain prefabricated profile of her, as a private person not keen to show her work etc… But the reality might have been different.

  • lucycarolan

    It could also be that Vivianne Meier simply couldn’t afford to get the films developed. Weren’t the contents of the lock-up where her belongs were stored sold at auction in her lifetime? Could she perhaps not afford to keep up the rental payments for that storage space either, which is how the contents came to be sold?

    It’s really great that her work has safely found it’s way to people who have recognised its value and respect it, but at the same time the degree of gratitude everyone feels about this (and I share it as well) seems to be clouding people’s thinking somewhat. The fact that she was still alive when her work was auctioned off but nobody could find her in time to speak to her about her work, is incredibly sad and makes it far too easy to mythologise her.

    Hopefully, the indisputable quality of her work will shine through inevitable attempts to turn Vivianne Meier into a brand.

  • Rose

    When I heard about her story it seemed to make perfect sense – why she was unknown and did not develop all those rolls. As you said it is impossible to know the true motivations, but from my experience there is a wonderful joy that comes from seeing/experiencing/capturing a moment of life that you recognize as the epitome of all the beauty-grime-happy-loneliness of your vision. And there is a heartbreaking sadness when you fail to record it. I know many photog friends who feel this way. I imagine she felt this strong compulsion to find those moments of life, and the rush of capturing it (and connecting with people). Then probably totally overwhelmed at the drudgery of developing, editing, printing, promotion, which is a completely other full time job (that John is finding out!). I can surely understand, and I think there are a lot of others just like her.

    And who knows, maybe we will find out that she did try to get noticed and no one cared? Fascinating story to see unfold.

  • bremser

    My favorite Winogrand video moment, and related to this conversation, is in this video at the 5:00 mark:

    He says: “I get totally out of myself, it’s the closest I come to not existing”
    And then they cut to a sigh of satisfaction, it’s sunny and he is in his element on the street. You can tell he is just loving being out there shooting, more so than the clip of him looking at contact sheets.

  • Esteban G.

    For years I was deep into theater and of course improv was around. After watching and performing improv the feeling I got is that improv is ultimately interesting to theater people.

    The active side of improv is great for performers and somewhat ok for writers/creators. Helps develop skills later used for canonic theater, loosens actors and what not, it’s a great exercise.
    The passive (spectator) side however I always had the feeling it was more interesting for the theater person than for the outside spectator. Because you could find those tricks and resources, the thought process, see it develop. Ultimately the experience as theater person spectator was made better if you had been doing improv. Because you knew what it was all about, the tricks and trades.
    Maybe it was me and a bias against improv or maybe it was the improv I was exposed to. This shouldn’t be a universal rule, just my experience.

    The analogy I think of between street photography and improv is on a different plane. I get the feeling SP is training for photographers and is rarely appreciated by the non-photography crew, for reasons similar to those with improv. This is not absolutely true; some photographers train with SP but others live on it, some non-photographers adore SP and others believe they can do just the same.
    There is however that correlation between the unstaged or the unexpected. Which again is a weak one; the role as an improviser has (generally) more influence on the environment than the role of a street photographer.

    Or the other stronger correlation that sp and improvisational theater will be looked as minor representations of its art. By those who have never tried them, might I add.

  • Bfonz313

    I find undeveloped film a fascinating thing, so I got excited about your post until “You have no idea if what you’re doing is working, nor show a desire to take any sort of pleasure in reflecting on your own work.”

    C’mon, Winnorgrad (and probably Maier) knew what the hell they were doing and likely using cameras with results they knew like the back of their hands. Yeah, wandering the streets was probably the real art of it but you might be making a bit of a leap in assuming they didn’t care about what they were recording. they knew what they were doing, processing the work wasn’t realized and that’s a shame, indeed because they probably didn’t have the means or time on earth to do so.