I see the fat girl gazing into the future
When I was a boy, my mother would tell me that she had been a fat girl.
I didn’t know what to make of it. She wasn’t fat when she said it, and even when she would complain that she was fat, I’d think to myself that she was small and slim and not like all the other moms. She was exotic, was an artist, had taken ballet classes, could have been someone different if she wasn’t who she was now.
That memory, however, becomes an indelible part of how I experience this photo.
A photograph creates its own assertion when we look at it, leaves its flat dimensions and infiltrates our imagination in an insidious and sinuous way. The realism of photography deceives us into believing that we are looking at a representation of a singular moment. But it is the photograph’s absolute lack of dimension that lures us into providing our own context and assumptions.
That truth about our perception puts the photographer in an ambiguous moral position. More than any other visual artist, the photographer has to incorporate the mistakes of perception that the viewer may make into her distinct intent.
When I look at this photo, I see a fat, unkempt and awkward girl. Her stare is hurt and suspicious. I think that she’s sly. The holes in her shirt make me think that her family is on hard times, or they don’t care about what the girl looks like.
But I see something else in this photo, because of the stories my mother told.
I see a pretty woman with a sense of style, caught in a quiet moment, gazing up the street. Her eyes have the same stare they did when she was small.
Vivian Maier captured both those moments.