Bangkok, 21 December, 2014
Her name was Vivian Maier. She died not long ago, in 2009, at the age of 83, a spinster and childless, and penniless. She had spent some forty years, from the mid-1950s on, being a nanny for various well-off families in the Chicago area.
And she was a gifted photographer of the streets, mainly those of Chicago and New York.
She spent every possible minute that she could taking photos: in all her free time, but also when she was taking her charges for walks or to the playgrounds, as well as on her one big trip around the world, which she made in the early sixties. She took hundreds of thousands of photos. But hardly any of these made it past the stage of negatives, and many didn’t even get that far; they just stayed as rolls of unprocessed film.
She was a compulsive hoarder. She kept all the negatives and all the film rolls, and the 8 mm films she made, and the audio tapes she recorded, and just about everything else she had ever owned or collected, in cardboard boxes, old suitcases, and other containers. As she moved from one nannying job to another, she offloaded her accumulating stuff into a commercial storage space. In 2007, after she failed to keep up with her payments, the storage company auctioned her stuff off.
It looked like her work was about to disappear. But a number of photo collectors bought at the auction. They recognized a spark of genius in her photos and started trying to publicize them. A first attempt by Ron Slattery in 2008, who posted some of her photos on the internet, failed to generate much interest. Then in October 2009, six months after she died, another of the collectors, John Maloof, put some of his trove of her photos on Flickr, linked them to his blog, and the results went viral (this is a very modern story). Things snowballed from there, and her work is now beginning to garner a fair amount of critical and popular praise.
Would Vivian Maier have wanted this recognition? That is one of the questions touched upon in a fascinating documentary which John Maloof put together entitled “Finding Vivian Maier”. He tells the story of how after his initial purchase of her stuff he went on a voyage of discovery of who she was and what she did – quite a detective story – and he interviews a number of the children she nannied and their parents to try to understand what kind of person she was. It was seeing this film that moved me to write this post. I highly recommend my readers to see it if they have not done so already. And, by the way, according to the people who had known her, the answer to the question with which I started this paragraph is, probably yes for her work, but she would have intensely disliked to have the light of publicity shone on her; she was a very private person.
For those readers who want to get a taste of her work, I suggest you visit the site http://www.vivianmaier.com. I add here, from that same site, some of her photos which most struck me, to whet your appetite.
In a sad postscriptum, I have just read that Vivian Maier’s estate has got entangled in a challenge about who owns the copyright to her photos. The result is that it will be probably harder to see her works for the next several years. If my readers get a chance to see an exhibition, on no account miss it. It might be a long time before you get another chance.