A Love Letter to an Elusive Genius
She cradles a Rolleicord camera to her breast, her eyes staring into her reflection. Until recently, the woman behind the camera was unknown, living a quiet life as a nanny in Chicago and in 2009, dying alone in a nursing home at the age of 83. When Vivian Maier’s cache of 100,000 images were unearthed, her work was – rightfully - compared with the greats of street photography. A film was made, “Finding Vivian Maier”, which introduced a new generation to her work. But Maier herself was the draw; who, exactly, was the mysterious French nanny? What drove her relentless imagery, and why did she keep it so resolutely hidden?
In “Finding Vivian Maier,” a new documentary about John Maloof’s discovery that he directed with Charlie Siskel, interviews with Maier’s former charges, now middle-aged, do little to diminish the wondrous peculiarity of her story. They remember her as a woman of contradictory impulses: she was uncompromising yet playful, endlessly curious yet intensely private, and, despite being a caretaker, could be aloof to the point of callousness.
Vivian Maier was born in New York City on February 1st, 1926 to a French mother and an Austrian father, and spent her childhood shuttling between America and France. Maier was a private but eccentric Mary Poppins-like figure, who spoke with a delicate French trill and was never without her medium format camera. She took thousands of photographs from the 1950s to 70s, but squirrelled them away in a room she forbade anyone to enter. Now that her work has been discovered, Maier’s legacy is secure. “Every street photography book will have to include her from now on,” says Deutsche Borse Photography Prize nominee Anna Fox. “In the history of photography, lots of people have been discovered after their deaths, but her photographs are amazing. I was quite taken aback when I first saw them. What’s most interesting is the accidental story and the incredible effort to get her work off the ground – because there’s little about her background and people that knew her, it adds to the mystery and intrigue. But the images are beautifully constructed and it’s clear she knew her references. There’s a glimmer of Diane Arbus, a glimmer of Robert Frank.”
Vivian Maier could have gleaned this knowledge from her large library of art and photography books, but there’s no record of her being formally trained and, as far as John Maloof is aware, she never received any feedback from critics or experts. Despite this, she left a secret archive of masterful photographs behind – something which, for Anna Fox, is typically female. “It’s a common story that only small amounts of photographic work by women get out into the public,” she adds. “Despite the vast female majority of photography teachers and students, it’s still a male-dominated profession. Exhibitions and publications hardly reference women photographers. It can change, it will have to change. As a woman you have a privileged position,” she continues. “Women develop relationships with people they are photographing, and are less threatening with a medium format camera. There
is a subtle irony and gentleness that is a particular female gaze, although it makes more sense to look at photographers as photographers. Vivian’s images are so strong they stand up regardless of gender.” In the film, domestic work is placed in opposition to artistic ambition, as if the two are incompatible. But are they? Street photographers are often romanticized as mystical flâneurs, who inconspicuously capture life, who are in the world, but not of it. The help, like the street photographer, is supposed to be invisible. Menial tasks like child care have, historically, been relegated to working-class women, who give up domestic autonomy to live in intimate proximity to their employers while remaining employees. In the best circumstances, a nanny becomes a trusted member of the family and allows her identity and independence to be entwined with, even subsumed by, the people for whom she works. In the worst circumstances, she is expendable, replaceable; her bath-time instructions and dinnertime offerings and bedtime kisses are tasks just as easily completed by the helpers who precede or follow her. Both the photographer and the nanny evoke fantasies of invisibility that rely on the erasure of real labour, but for opposite ends. “Women’s work” is diminished and ignored while the (historically male) artist’s pursuit is valorized as a creative gift. All reasons why the nanny is the perfect person to photograph the world unnoticed. Maybe the very thing that made people hire her as a nanny—her watchfulness, her “alertness to human tragedies and those moments of generosity and sweetness,” as the photographer Joel Meyerowitz puts it in the film—made her the artist we know she was.
With her twin-lens Rolleiflex camera held inconspicuously at hip height, Maier captured fleeting moments and turned them into something extraordinary. One scowling lady fixes another’s wrinkled veil; a child with grimy cheeks and tear-filled eyes defiantly crosses her arms in front of a window display of draped gloves; a nun waits in the shadows; a prostrate inebriate cups his forehead; a young man rides an absurdly large horse under the El. Doorways, parking spots, bus stops, industrial neighbourhoods, movie-theatre box offices, city parks, suburban dead ends, train platforms, empty restaurant tables, storefronts, newspaper stands—she photographed the in-between, unexamined places.
It’s impossible to know how Vivian Maier felt about her obscurity, but her images sensitively record life’s have-nots and also-rans. Gentler than the work of Arbus, they bleed with empathy, retaining a respectful distance even as they hone in on outsiders’ private moments. She captures the faraway gaze of a young man caught in thought and the taut expression of a middle-aged woman sneaking a look at a disabled man, but the faces she records are always sombre. It’s always a film noir in Maier’s world. In December 2008, Maier slipped and fell on the ice. She never truly recovered and died on April 21st the following year in a suburban nursing home. While she was still alive, someone – it’s thought Maier herself – recorded her thoughts on life and death. Although the sound is tinny there’s striking confidence in her voice. “Nothing is meant to last forever,” she says. “We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel. You get on, you have to go to the end, and somebody has the same opportunity to go to the end, and so on. And somebody else takes their place.” She could be talking about her own photography, which so nearly sank into obscurity.
A lot of the stories of difficult women can be unflattering even when they are told in praise. The unconventional choices of women are explained in the language of mental illness, trauma, or sexual repression, as symptoms of pathology rather than as an active response to structural challenges or mere preference. Biographers often treat iconoclastic women like Yoko Ono, Marie Curie, Emily Dickinson, and Vivian Maier as problems that need solving. There’s no disputing that Maier was peculiar and prickly, and that her interests spanned the benign and the morbid. But she was neither a Mary Poppins nor a surrogate Mommie Dearest. The people who knew her described impenetrability that, even in retrospect, threatens the fantasy that people who choose to care for children are all hugs and rainbows.
When she was a girl, she briefly lived in close quarters with a noted female photographer, Jeanne Bertrand, who may have taught the young Maier how to take pictures. I wonder what Maier learned from her, what she told her about trying to be an artist. I wonder what kinds of opportunities would have existed for Maier decades later, and which of the same impediments. Viviane Maier had neither money nor connections, but she had control over how she lived, what she looked at, and what she photographed.