I've watched the documentary "FINDING VIVIAN MAIER" two-and-a-half times recently, and I can't get it out of my mind. The story is amazing. I wish I could dream up a plot like this: eccentric, reclusive woman who worked as a nanny for forty years dies and leaves behind a collection of her photographs, virtually unseen by anybody, that reveals her to be a photographer of remarkable talent, perhaps genius. More than 150,000 images of street life that she shot in New York, France, South America, Asia but mostly Chicago between the 1950s and 1970s were discovered when the contents of her storage unit was auctioned off, creating a sensation in the world of photography. Her work has invited comparison with many of the greats: Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Gary Winogrand, and Weegee.
She's also been called "the Emily Dickinson of Photography" -- a complete unknown who is recognized posthumously as a major artist. It's really extraordinary. But at least Emily Dickinson tried to get poems published; she wanted her poems to be known. There is no evidence that Vivian Maier ever tried to get her photographs out into the world. She kept her genius completely secret.
First, here are some websites. Look at her work. That is the main thing:
And here's the trailer for 'FINDING VIVIAN MAIER"
I love photography. I have quite a few books on the subject and am lucky enough to own a few very nice photographs. (They are, in fact, the most valuable physical things that I have.) And as soon as I started to look at Maier's work, I instantly felt/saw/knew: she is the real thing.
Her photographs have everything that I look for in art: truth, beauty, humor, real-ness, strangeness, surprise, excitement, humanity. Her photographs show me the world in a new way, which is what every artist strives to achieve.
It's hard to separate the art from the artist. Her story is so unusual. I advise you to see the documentary directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel which was released in 2013 to get the full story. Maier was, to say the least, a complicated, contradictory person. She spoke with an affected "European" accent but was born in New York. She worked as a caregiver but could be cruel and even abusive. She was intensely private, a hoarder, but endlessly curious and intrepid. She was strait-laced yet playful. She was Mary Poppins with a dark side.
Nonetheless, it seems like the nanny was a genius.
But I can see how being a nanny served Vivian Maier: it took care of her food and shelter, and, in a way, gave her quite a bit of freedom. While she was raising other people's children, she would take them on outings to the streets of Chicago and photograph the street life and street people with her twin-lens Rolleiflex camera, one that hung at her hip so that she could take photographs inconspicuously. In one telling moment in the documentary, an acquaintance asks her what she does for a living, and she says, "I'm a sort of spy."
And she was – on the families she worked for, and on the life she observed as a person alone. From all evidence, she had no friends, no close family – only a few extremely distant cousins in France – and no life outside her photography. A very, very strange woman. In this blog, I keep coming back to that adage "Trust the art, not the artist." This might be another case of a deeply flawed human being creating a body of work of that is so grand that "flaws" don't matter.
I bet that some nights Vivian put herself to sleep, thinking, "Some day ... some day the world will see my photographs ... Then they will recognize my genius ... and they will all bow down to me! ... All these fools! ... People will serve me! They'll wash my laundry and my floors! Not the other way around.... 'And soon I'll match them in renown.'"
Well, maybe not "soon," but "someday."
Regardless of who she was, Vivian Maier got the last laugh. Her vision is now part of the Big Book of Art, where all artists, regardless of genre, want to write their name.