Vivian Maier is big news at the moment with the release of a documentary film, a BBC feature and various books collecting her work being published. Her story, and that of her work (because they are two distinct things) are remarkable.
Briefly, because you can read it elsewhere from a huge range of sources, she was from a French family but spent most of her life in Chicago. There, over a 40-year period, she worked as a nanny to several families while at the same time producing a huge body of unseen photographic work, both still and movie. She was a reclusive character who didn’t seem to have friends or family, neither did she show or circulate her work during her lifetime. In her final years, when she was too old to work and so short of money, her storage ‘lock-up’ that she rented was repossessed and, as is the process, sold off to bidders that weren’t aware of its content.
Two shady characters bought the unmarked suitcases and packing boxes with a view to auctioning them off. They discovered that there were more than 100,000 negatives in this collection, none of which had been seen before. Quickly, curators of various standard and motivation became involved and the Maier industry began. The terrible thing is that while this was happening, Maier was still alive and in ill health. She didn’t die for another two years after the discovery and yet it seems that she received none of the benefit from her work.
I’ve not seen the latest documentary feature that has been made by John Maloof (who paid $380 to buy a box of 2/3rds of the negatives) as it isn’t available in the UK yet. However, if you are very quick, you can still see Alan Yentob’s documentary made in 2013 by the BBC – Vivian Mayer, Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?. This is a well made and fascinating program that deals with the depressing story of what has happened to her work since her death and in the final third, her life story.
It contains a lot of her photography including some of her well known self-portraits, her work on the street with the homeless and poor in the toughest areas of the city, and some of the picture she took of the children that she cared for. Many of the pictures are excellent with strong composition and often, an unnerving proximity to her subjects – almost Bruce Gilden-like. Considering that she was a woman alone on some ‘mean-streets, she must have been a brave and committed photographer.
It’s interesting to think that because she didn’t have an audience, that the work was made only for herself. This gave her a freedom and independence to investigate whatever she chose and to go wherever her instincts led. The pictures that she took while at work with her relatively affluent employers contrast with those street scenes that she took when ‘off-duty’. She seems to have had quite a lot of this down-time that she used to great effect to learn her skill. The famous street photographer Joel Meyerowitz is interviewed in the film and talks about why this ability, or even luxury, of shooting only for yourself is important and leads to a purity of results.
Also available online is Ted Forbes’ Art Of Photography episode on Vivian Maier. He agrees that some of the work is very good, but airs his concerns about the curation of it. He makes the point that usually an artist will be able to decide what they show to the public. Our hard-drives are full of images that will never see the light of day, with a small number making it as far as Flickr or our blogs, and fewer still being printed and shown on a gallery wall. It is the right of an artist to maintain that control but with Maier’s work, those choices are being made by people that until recently, made their money listing job-lots on Ebay. Fortune has handed Maloof and Goldstein this golden egg and they seem to be setting about making as much money as possible out of it as they can rather than worrying about quality control or having any consideration for the person that made it.
Maloof’s published collection, Vivian Maier – Street Photographer is just that, a collection of images with no narrative and little quality control. I was surprised to see that Geoff Dyer had written the foreword and given the book further legitimacy. Some of the pictures are spectacular, but others only average and when reading it we wonder which would Maier have chosen? It could be argued that as we’ll never know the answer to this, then Maloof’s choices are as valid as anyone’s, although I’d prefer to see a more rigour and discipline applied.
An online interview from DP/30 with Maloof and film-maker Charlie Siskel must be an extremely tough watch for Ted Forbes. In it, the instantly objectionable Maloof talks of how he ‘discovered an unknown artist’ who he refers to throughout as ‘Vivian’ despite never having met her. There is horrifying conjecture on Maier’s sexuality and ‘dark areas’ of her personality, hinting at abuse of the children she had in her care, this despite the earlier assurance that no-one knew anything about her during her lifetime. I fear that the film will be manipulative and sensationalised, designed to keep the momentum behind the Maier industry, so lining Maloof’s pockets.
In the trailer for the Maloof film, someone who had earlier calls herself a friend of Maier (despite not being aware that she took pictures!) says of the success of her work that Maier would ‘never have let this happen’, and maybe that’s the point. Perhaps the reason no-one had ever seen her work is because that’s how she wanted it. Some of the work is good enough that if it were seen by the right people, maybe using her employer’s contacts, she could have been ‘discovered’ within her lifetime if this is what she had wanted. Maloof says that it is a ‘tragedy that she didn’t get to see the success of her work’, but is it? Maybe, it is a tragedy that this private work that forms a personal exploration of the world around her is being exploited in this way.
Some music for you…
Finding Vivian Maier film – http://www.vivianmaier.com/film-finding-vivian-maier/
BBC Documentary – Vivian Mayer, Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?
The Art of Photography podcast, Ted Forbes – http://theartofphotography.tv/episodes/179-vivian-maier/
DP/30 interview with Siskel and Maloof – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g6R4cc7yhtQ