photography, writing and the spaces between
Who was Vivian Maier? She could be described the way Churchill once spoke of Russia, as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” A prim, foreign-accented woman, Maier worked as a nanny in a series of Chicago households from the 1950s to the 70s. One of her non-negotiable requirements at any job was a secure lock on her bedroom door, and only after her death was it discovered that this highly private woman was a great street photographer—ranking with such masters as Helen Leavitt and Garry Winogrand. Compulsive and prolific, Maier never showed her images to anyone, and when she died, she left thousands of them undeveloped.
I wrote about Maier here last year, concluding that “we’re bound to hear more” about her. Now, sure enough, comes a trifecta of cultural events about the secretive photographer, from the movie Finding Vivian Maier to two new shows of her work at the Howard Greenberg Gallery and a monograph, Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits from powerHouse Books (a follow-up to the 2011 monograph Vivian Maier: Street Photographer).
Last weekend, I attended the U.S. premiere of Finding Vivian Maier at the DOC NYC festival—described as “the hottest ticket” of a festival filled with great documentaries. The film is both unsettling and delightful, probing the mystery of Maier’s life and offering a compelling, bittersweet portrait of a very complicated woman. In the words of Charlie Siskel, who co-directed the movie with John Maloof, “If [Maier's] photographs were just okay, it would still be a great story.” The fact that her photographs are brilliant is the icing on the cake.
Of course, the biggest question about Maier—which the movie explores in depth—is why she never sought an audience for her work. John Maloof, the young man who discovered her after buying a random box of negatives at a community auction, is haunted by this question. He tracks down and interviews people who employed Maier, and children she looked after. He consults well-known photographers about the quality of her work.
The stories that emerge are fascinating and sometimes contradictory. A veritable Mary Poppins figure to some of the children she worked with, Maier was abusive to others. She was extremely wary of men, in a way that suggested she might have been abused herself. Often she refused to give her name and occupation to people, referring to herself as “the mystery woman” or “a kind of spy.”
From the interviews, one thing seems clear: Maier became a nanny in order to feed her photographic aspirations. Unlike working as a seamstress (which she’d done before), being a nanny allowed her to spend much of her time taking pictures outdoors. Her grown-up charges remember being dragged from their safe suburbs to sketchy Chicago neighborhoods, where they were sometimes left to fend for themselves while their nanny scurried off to take photographs.
Though she often comes across as a frosty outsider (there’s a lot of speculation in the movie about her accent), Maier was clearly engaged and persuasive with people. Her bottomless curiosity led her to interview and record people in supermarket checkout lines, and there’s an intriguing scene in the movie where she asks a woman to speak on tape about politics. “Come on,” she urges with a laugh, “women are supposed to be opinionated—I hope.” This mixture of humor, flattery and interest shows a woman who knew how to get what she wanted from people.
“Wow,” said filmmaker Michael Moore after the screening, in a Q&A session with directors Siskel and Maloof (who he was responsible for bringing together), “people are really going to like this movie.” What made the film so successful, Moore suggested, was that “the world is filled with people who write and paint and take photographs, and who know their voice will never be heard. Yet… nobody wants to be forgotten.”
A Michael Moore appearance wouldn’t be worth spit without a few rants, and Moore was happy to oblige. He lobbed one grenade at the moneyed/nepotist classes (“if you’re working class and don’t have an uncle in the business, it’s hard to be discovered”), and another at the American impulse to medicate away mental illness (“some of the most creative people I’ve met are crazy…we wouldn’t get the art if we expected them to line up on the assembly line…in some ways you have to welcome the crazy, not keep drugging our kids.”)
By contrast, Maloof was modest and restrained. In the movie, he’d confessed, “I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable or guilty, exposing the work of someone who didn’t want to be exposed.” Part of the discomfort, no doubt, is the fact that he stands to reap a huge fortune from Maier’s archive—yet if anyone is going to do this, I’m glad it’s this sincere, responsible young man. He talked eloquently about Maier’s virtuosity, and said her work had inspired him to study photography himself. Asked by an audience member about copyright issues, Maloof said he’d come to an arrangement with the photographer’s living relatives. “You’re due every dime you get, for making sure her work gets out there,” Moore told him.
Of the 150,000+ negatives Maier exposed during her life, the majority were of other people and scenes, but a significant number were self-portraits—which would seem to bear out Moore’s suggestion that, like most people, she wanted to be seen and remembered, if only by herself. Many of those self-portraits have just been published in the monograph Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits, and some are now on show at the Howard Greenberg Gallery.
In mirrors, windows, and car hubcaps, in the shadows she cast on beaches and brick walls—Maier resolutely puts herself in the frame. The emotional range of these images is quite wide. Some seem plaintive—Maier is isolated, severe, lonely. In others she seems happy, and some are appealingly whimsical—as, for example, when she photographs her shadow on the beach with a horseshoe crab where her heart should be.
As Maloof writes in a foreword to the book, though we may never know who Vivian Maier really was, we can at least see her through the “unique confession” of her self-portraits. And there we see a fully realized, complex individual—sometimes playful, sometimes withdrawn. Even at her most morose, though, Maier never stopped being creative, looking for unique angles and settings that would come together into a perfect composition.
Unfortunately, Maier’s life story didn’t end well. As she got older she became increasingly peculiar and paranoid, hoarding piles of newspapers and junk, begging for friendship, alienating people. In the community where she died, she was remembered as an eccentric, a batty old woman sitting alone on a park bench. If the younger Vivian Maier had passed this woman by, surely she would have stopped to take her photograph.