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A mysterious and great photographer: Vivian Maier

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014
Maier in one of several self-portraits she too...

Maier in one of several self-portraits she took on the streets of Chicago (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I watched the documentary film Finding Vivian Maier at the Landmark Century Cinema last week and was mesmerized by the mystery and talent of Vivian Maier.

Maier was a nanny who took more than 100,000 photographs, including many self-portraits, in her life. She was born in New York in 1926 and settled in Chicago in the 1950s until her death in 2009, alone and unknown, even to those who knew her. In the film (directed by Charlie Siskel and John Maloof), we followed the footsteps of the filmmaker to find who she was and through the interviews with those who hired her or were taken care of by her, we came to know her as someone who was eccentric, faked a French accent, and remained single and secretive all her life. No one seemed to know her background or the reason why she took so many photos yet didn’t get them out, or even develop them. Her works were hidden in storage lockers.

John Maloof, doing research on Chicago history, bought a box of her negatives at an auction, was intrigued by her works, therefore, started the search journey and eventually helped “discover” Maier as one of the 20th century’s greatest photographers, yet as an individual, she remained a mystery to us all.

Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows

Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows (Photo credit: wordsnpix)

There is another documentary on Maier titled The Vivian Maier Mystery, which will be shown in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium at the Harold Washington Library Center on Thursday, April 24, at 6 p.m. If you can attend the screening, arrive earlier to take a look at an exhibition of Maier’s work in the Special Collection Exhibition Hall on the 9th floor. I went there last week and was pleased to see some of her work in print. The exhibition puts the photos in “the context of her life” from the 1950s through the 1970s, featuring a selection of her recognized street photography. Click link here for more information.

In addition, the Chicago History Museum is also having an exhibition, Vivian Maier’s Chicago, through the summer.

Maiser is an amazing street photography. Check out the films and exhibitions—well worthy of your time.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into an award-winning documentary film by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Golden Globe Winner Jacqueline Bisset. Visit for more information.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into an award-winning documentary film by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Golden Globe Winner Jacqueline Bisset. Visit for more information.

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Radio Interview at WLUW

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Live interview with Katy Hogan and Michael James

A last minute request for an interview with Katy Hogan and Michael James at WLUW, 88.7 FM brought me to the live program at Heartland Cafe early yesterday morning. Most of the tables at the Café were taken by diners when I arrived. Lisa Smith, producer of the program, was busy solving some technical problems before the one-hour program went live.

The setting was casual, and the sound of conversations among the diners, accelerated by the noises made by small children, made the place full of life.

“How can you get all the side ‘sound track‘ out?” I asked. I have done many radio interviews about my book and the film based on my book. But I had never been in a place that the surrounding sound appeared louder than what came out on a stage when interviews would be conducted.

“No problem,” Michael said. “We use sound filters.”

I watched diners eat or chat when the first person talking about local elections was being interviewed. I was a little concerned when my turn was up.

The Harold Washington Library in downtown Chic...

The Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago. Taken by Douglas Kaye, 2005. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since it was a “last minute request,” Katy and Michael had not had any time looking into the film, which, in a way, served well in giving me a chance to give a brief introduction about the film and the book Mulberry Child. The interview felt like a chat, and we went on to cover the upcoming screenings of Mulberry Child at the Gene Siskel Film Center from March 30 to April 5. I was proud to announce the partnership of the Film Center with the upcoming Chicago Public Library‘s One Book, One Chicago program in showcasing the film. Toward the end, Michael even brought up the film website., ” Michael repeated after me, so listeners could take it down and check out all the information on the film.

Lisa Smith was motioning to us that our time was running out. We brought the conversation to an end. I was surprised to hear the loud applause from the diners. I turned to look at the room and was touched to see so many people were clapping their hands while looking at us. I was worried no one was going to pay much attention when I walked on to the stage.

I passed a few postcards of the film to the people sitting in the front. I said goodbye to Lisa Smith before the finish of the program, as I had to rush to an 11 a.m. appointment.

A woman with a small child in her arms stopped me at the door.

“Thank you for sharing your story,” she said. “Could I have a postcard?” she asked. “I’d like to share it with my friends.”

I walked away, feeling glad I had come to the interview.

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Touching Moments

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

Audience at Q & A with Jian and Lisa after watching Mulberry Child

All three screenings of Mulberry Child at the Gene Siskel Film Center were sold out.  I was amazed and touched that the audiences of different ages and backgrounds connected with our life stories!

At our 2nd screening, I was pleased to see a number of Chinese in the audience. I was most eager to hear what they had to say. The moment I stepped down from the podium after Q & A, a young Chinese woman in her 20s stood up from her front row seat and hugged me.

“Thank you for sharing your story,” she said in a low voice. I realized she was crying.

I put my arms around her as she laid her head over my left shoulder and sobbed. Two of her friends stood by, their eyes welled up with tears.

The young woman lifted her head and gave me an embarrassed smile, wiping away her tears.

“It’s OK,” I said, padding her on her back as she lowered her head over my shoulder again.

Lisa and Jian addressing audience's questions

“Just call your mother tonight and tell her you love her, too,” I said, trying to make it light.

A young Chinese couple, both graduate students from UIC, waited patiently as our conversation kept being interrupted by friends who came to give their congratulations and bid farewell. It turned out that they both came from Changchun, the city where I was born.

“We never learned much about the Cultural Revolution,” the wife said. “I feel I get to know my parents much more by watching your film.”

I was deeply moved by their reaction and comments.

More than two dozens of people lingered behind and talked until the staff at the Gene Siskel Film Center called out to close the theatre at 11 p.m.

The last screening was equally moving. Only one or two people left when we started the Q & A. I felt the connection from the audience and took turns with my daughter Lisa to address their questions on China, our relationship, and the impact of the film on us.

The next day, I found one posting from a Chinese woman named Li. I remembered talking to her the night before. She was Lisa’s age. She wrote: “Every Chinese should watch this film.”

Jian with graduate students from IIT

I received numerous moving comments from my friends via email during the week after the screenings. I was so touched that I selected a few each day to forward to my director Susan and executive producer Ellis, stating these are the “love letters of the day.”

Mulberry Child was so well received by the audience that the Gene Siskel Film Center invited us to come back for a weeklong screening from March 30 to April 5, with 11 shows. The Chicago Public Library also invited us to participate in the spring’s One Book, One Chicago program, stating Mulberry Child would be a “wonderful companion” to the selected book, so we formed a three-way partnership.

I’ve committed to do Q & A with Lisa at the last screening of each day during the screening period. I look forward to connect directly with as many viewers as possible.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into a feature-length documentary film by Susan Morgan Cooper and narrated by Jacqueline Bisset.

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Online Research

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

By Jian Ping

I just attended a two-day “Online Research” seminar at the Summer Institute for Teachers that was run by the Chicago Humanity Festival (CHF) at DePaul University’s downtown campus. Attendees were primarily teachers from private and public schools in the greater Chicago area. Since I had been giving talks to students at a number of schools and had attended the summer writing seminar offered by the same institute the year before, I received the invitation from CHF to apply. I did.

Paula Dempsey, Coordinator of Reference Services at DePaul University, was the instructor. She was truly wonderful—clear, patient, knowledgeable, and related to our group’s needs and level very well. With a smile on her face, she made the few approaches she selected to demonstrate for online research comprehensible to those of us who were technically challenged, to say the least. She emphasized using Google as a tool, not a source, distinguished research goals of “speculation and investigation,” and compared the differences and values of “traditional” research vs. digital. She showed us how to use Zotero, a powerful program for online research, how to use +/- to weed out unwanted sites and utilize “scholar” and advanced search to limit searches to site:org or site: gov or filetype:pdf  for more reliable resources. She also showed us how to use Chicago Public Library’s database—wonderfully organized, paid information at our finger tips, only if we know how to get access to them!

I walked away feeling thrilled and empowered. I could hardly wait to get on my computer and use the skills I just learned.  

I want to give my heartfelt thanks to Julia and the staff at CHF for putting together such a productive and well-organized program. And of course, a big applause to Paula, who, with grace and efficiency, showed us the basic tools to untangle the overwhelming information in the cyberspace.  I’m sure many students will benefit from the tools their teachers have learned to use.  

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By Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. Visit or