Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Enigmatic Vivian Maier

Street photographer; sometimes nanny, Vivian Maier is still not a house-hold name. She remains largely, someone reclusive and unknown to this day. This is changing. Describing herself as a spy and leading a life of secrecy, often entered into shadowy places of full sunlight, discovering and uncovering many stories of the unseen or at least the unnoticed with her camera.  

Maier was brilliant in her efforts, the truest and purest artist in the noblest sense. She remained largely among the unknown and unsung. Maier’s work; just short of genius or surpassing genius depending on the viewer’s interpretation is certainly among the most alluring creators the world of photography is yet to know. The Maier self-portraits are in a league with Cindy Sherman’s; her cunning portraits of children surely equaling those of Sally Mann. And we are still in the process of her discovery.
It was real estate agent John Maloof that discovered the incredible talent and body of work by the completely unknown artist. His lucky, chancy finding happened while Maloof; researching for a book, purchased the contents of an old storage locker. This would prove to be a true treasure for Maloof. Prints, negatives and rolls of undeveloped film were included among the unsorted materials. Maier; the undocumented, extraordinary talent was suddenly found! Maloof began a personal investigation into the maker of this sensational photographic archive. Others have since joined Maloof in his quest to uncover the mystery of the nanny/photographer. Michael Williams and Pamela Bannos too, are working, investigating, and compiling their research on Maier as they put together books and films on the life and works of Vivian Maier. A clearer picture of Maier is coming together from the many individual efforts.

While Maier worked as a nanny she was considered something of a “Mary Poppins” to her children.  They adored her and loved the numerous outings and adventures around New York and Chicago. Vivian always carried her camera and amassed something better than 100,000 images; many that she never printed or even developed. Her camera of choice was a Rolleiflex twin lens reflex that evidence shows she began to use after seeing a documentary on great French Photographers of the early 20th Century at MoMA. 

Maier recorded her imagery with precision, grace and care. Her photographs are incredibly and generously democratic. Men, women, children, every national origin and station of life depicted honestly with skill, nuance and subtle beauty. For reasons all her own Maier never sought fame or to be paid as a professional. She possesses all the qualities of the great and professional as the work itself most eloquently speaks. Her anonymity remained intact throughout her life. There are creative comparisons to be made to the painter Vincent Van Gogh in their continued devotion to life, art and the expressions of the human spirit. Vincent however did seek and want to support himself financially at least to some degree as is evident in his letters to his brother, Theo. Nothing at this point has surfaced on Maier to suggest she sought either wealth or fame. We are honestly just beginning to write the book of Vivian Maier and may find something to the contrary. Her life remains firmly open ended and without any true definition. When all is said it is really about the work and the process. Maier loved photography, the doing of the thing and her subjects as the sheer volume and quality of her results illustrate.    

Life, death, legacy and purpose were things considered by Maier.  At one point Vivian Maier reflected on an audio tape in this way:

  "Well I suppose nothing is meant to last forever. We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel; you get on, you have to go in the end and then somebody has the same opportunity to go on to the end…and so on and somebody else takes their place.” 

                                                                                                         Vivian Maier

Miss Maier; as is said she liked to be addressed, made a mark on her time and her world. This literally as she saw, experienced and recorded it. She walked the streets of the city along with her children in tow, in search of mystery, adventure and treasures. What was once their secret is now ours to share, to study, to enjoy, proclaiming with raucous exuberance and “right out loud!”