Vivian Maier: lost and found

Discovering Vivian Maier was a revelation to me. Born in Manhattan in 1926 of a French mother and absent father, Maier spent her life in service, much like her mother and grandmother before her, as a nanny to affluent Chicago and New York families.

Her formative years were split between the USA and France, and while domestic service was her job, photography was her passion, which she pursued with great tenacity.

I am particularly interested in the history of women photographers, so stumbling across Maier was, for me, like striking gold.

Maier’s work covers her connection with the children in her charge, as well as parenthood generally, which is at times very revealing of the complex relationship between adults and children. However, it also charts a changing period of US history on the ground through street life and latterly, political developments: the civil protest of the late 1960s, Watergate and beyond.

Put in perspective, the amazing thing is that Maier was documenting American life at the same time as the celebrated photographer Robert Frank, whose The Americans series remains iconic and highly influential. Frank’s work was published in 1958, but Maier’s was completely unknown.

Maier shot street people twenty years before Nan Goldin

Maier sought out the underdog and down-at-heel: it’s a common theme running through her images. She took the downtown train from her comfortable home in the New York suburbs to the Bowery to shoot drunks, street people and the dispossessed a good twenty years before Nan Goldin picked up her camera to capture the sexual and social outsiders of her time in the same location.

In short, Maier was a pioneer of street photography.

Maier adeptly occupied the liminal space between being in the world and being apart from it, which served her creative process well. Like other artists who are in the world but not of it, she was sufficiently distanced to be able to document the world and his wife as it passed by without really being noticed.

Her choice of camera, Rolleiflex, helped her because the viewfinder is vertical rather than horizontal, and therefore less intrusive. An almost-ghostlike presence in her self-portraits, instead she turned her gaze outward and has left a record that is striking, powerful and beautifully composed.

In the music world, Nick Drake was much the same; like his prophetic song, ‘Fruit Tree’, “They’ll only know that you were here when you’re gone.”

From an artistic viewpoint it is tragic that Maier’s work was never released to the public, if only for her own sake: it was discovered too late for her to be able to benefit from it financially. Over the years she had ploughed what little money she did have into photography stock and storage.

Towards the end of her life, unable to meet the costs of the warehouse in which she had stored some 150,000 images in film and print, her work was sold off for a song in anonymous suitcases and boxes to random collectors who didn’t even know what they were buying. Now her work is held in major private collections, and large prints of her previously unprinted negatives are exhibited in galleries, and on the art market for thousands.

Her work is on the art market for thousands

It’s questionable what Maier would have thought of her images being exposed so publicly.

It’s also open to debate what she would have thought of disinterested collectors editing her work for public consumption.

One of the original and major collectors of Maier’s work, John Maloof, has released a documentary about her, Finding Vivian Maier, which is on general release right now; the BBC also aired a documentary about her this week.

An intensely private person, Maier guarded her motivations and her work fiercely. One wonders whether her history as an illegitimate child cast a shadow over her life: she was a complex individual, but nonetheless during her lifetime it was still a stigma to be of illegitimate birth. Mothers were sent away to the country to have their babies, who then were often given up for adoption. Maier’s mother chose to keep her daughter, and leave for France for a different life.

Perhaps it was this that kept her from showing her work to the world: fame would mean exposure, then enquiry and invasion. When you become famous, people want to know about you as well as your work.

Whatever her reasons for remaining enigmatic and bowdlerizing her past, Maier didn’t elect to risk it. And whatever our conjecture about Maier’s psychology, what we do know is that she had a very personal relationship with the camera. Photography was her lifelong project, one that ran through her veins.

I am only sorry that she was never hailed as the truly accomplished artist that she was in her own lifetime. But she has left a body of incredible work for us to admire, and has finally taken her rightful place as a recognised, gifted 20th-century photographer.

The truth will out in the end – and what a wonderful truth that is.

Vivian Maier, Self-Portrait. Still from Finding Vivian Maier, © 2013


2 thoughts on “Vivian Maier: lost and found

    1. Hi Paul, yes – it is very good! I’ve not seen Finding Vivian Maier yet, although fellow photographers I know have; no doubt it will raise some questions about the posthumous curation and editing of her work.

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