Vivian Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009)
There are few photographers, who don’t know her name today, but only a few years ago she was known to none of them. Her story is remarkable for reasons that I personally feel extend well beyond her physical photographic legacy. The images themselves are just a beginning.
Vivian’s photographic journey begins in or around 1949, two years before leaving France for the US, where she worked as a nanny and caregiver throught her life. Working in New York and then in Chicago, she took photographs of changing America from 1951 into the late 1990s – the best part of half a century – capturing ordinary life during her spare time. In 2007, shortly before her death, a storage locker containing many of her possessions was auctioned off due to payment issues. Amongst the contents were her negatives, which are now being archived and printed for the enjoyment of the public.
I have to hand it to those behind the publicity of the work, because she is probably better known to many enthusiast photographers than some of the greatest icons in the field. Some have put her on a pedestal and suggested she is a’ great’, who was missed, but I wonder if this misses the point. My personal interest lies somewhere between the woman and the (admittedly wonderful) photographs she took. It lies in the relationship between the two as it pertains to all of us.
Famous photographers have careers, with starting points, trajectories, changes in style perhaps and, eventually, an ending. Their work emerges at various stages and we are drip fed this change. We become accustomed to the relationship between the ageing personality and their changing work. It makes sense, because we live with this relationship, or even where it is posthumous, we recognise that this all took place in the public eye: it was witnessed and understood.
What’s remarkable about Vivian Maier’s work is that from beginning to end it remained completely hidden. Much is said of how she documented ordinary life on the street… that she was the unassuming fly on the wall during half a century of change and this is true. She clearly possessed a sharp eye along with a certain playfulness and the evident compassion in her photographs marries up perfectly with her chosen career: she loved and cared for people. This combination, along with 50 years of commitment, has resulted in a tremendous archive of photographs. For me, however, most of the intrigue (and what makes Vivian’s work so special) lies elsewhere: we have been provided a window into the inner life of the woman holding the camera, unaffected by fame, career developing publicists, agencies or any other form of spin. What lies on the other side of this window is humble beyond words. Its pure and it cuts right to the heart of the concept of empathy:
empathy ˈɛmpəθi/ noun: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
I still stand in front of beautiful prints made by the hands of long gone photographers in wonder. Not just at the image, but the idea that the person stood there and looked upon that scene and made the print so that I could look upon the scene that took shape inside the photographer’s mind. I sometimes wonder if it’s ever about photographs so much as the people who take them and the minds we are welcomed into.
Vivian’s work also reminds me of just how much we miss. How many others are out there, or were? How many archives ended up rotting in cellars, or in landfill sites? How many thousands are creating those archives as I type this post? What does this mean when we pass a stranger on the street, or consider the care of the elderly? Anyone who has worked as a carer with the elderly will tell you of the moving experiences they have had sharing remarkable life stories with the most unassuming of people, at the end of their lives. This is the beauty of Vivian’s work. It reminds me of what we often fail to see in others in the hustle and bustle of daily life. It reminds me of the time we often fail to give to others and the limited opportunities to really connect with another soul’s trajectory in life. It also brings out a sense of injustice at the loneliness and ultimate passing of gentle souls who deserved more of our time and attention.
It would be foolish to indulge conjecture by making bold statements about whether Vivian Maier was happy, broken or fulfilled. I am also not sure it matters with respect to where such thoughts may take us. She lived a ‘simple, unremarkable life’ when viewed from the outside; however, it’s the reversal of perspectives made possible by her photography that allow us to explore the most compelling existential questions of all. This is her gift.