About a year ago I watched an Imagine documentary called 'Who took Nanny's pictures?', about the posthumous discovery of the street-photographer Vivian Maier and her enormous body of work. I was captivated by the work of a woman who either didn't recognise her talent, or had no need or desire for recognition, and perhaps a little enthralled by the mystery surrounding her. I haven't yet seen the latest documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, but autobiographical details about her remain scant. I suppose it appeals to our curious nature - such an intriguing body of work, and yet we have no idea what made her tick.
Vivian Maier was a nanny for families in a wealthy Chicago suburb in the 1950's and 60's. She grew up in New York and France, and began taking photographs in her rural French village on a basic Kodak Box Brownie. By the time she moved to Chicago in the mid-1950's, Maier had upgraded to a Rolleiflex and had developed the skills to set up a dark room in her little attic bedroom. She would photograph her charges during the day, before taking to the streets of downtown Chicago in the evening. Maier took a lot of photographs and I mean a lot - the entire collection amounts to some 150,000 pieces of work - the majority of which Maier saw only once, as she looked down into the viewfinder of Rolleiflex, for she didn't develop or print the majority of her work.
At the heart of Maier's work is an inherent juxtaposition - she spent her days photographing the well-off middle classes but in her spare time would seek out those at the other end of the social scale, the waifs and strays and down-and-outs of downtown Chicago. The photographs offer us a looking glass into the past, but also invite us into the moment that Maier managed to capture. She has created an intimacy with her subjects, but she's done so by anonomysing herself - by looking down into her camera lense, rather than straight at her subjects, Maier manages to distance herself from them, and yet she's right there in the moment with them. She creates an intimacy, but she never intrudes.
I like to people watch, and Maier work is essentially a record of her people watching. I couldn't stop watching this 8mm Super 8 she made in Chicago; the clothes, the people, the fact life carries on around her as if she isn't even there.
Towards the end of her life Maier fell on hard times, and couldn't keep up the payments on the storage unit in which she kept the thousands of rolls of film and negatives she had produced over her lifetime. A group of former charges put in the money to keep a roof over her head, but were unaware of the storage unit. In 2007 the contents were put up for auction and purchased by three men - John Maloof, Ron Slattery, and Randy Prow. The auction house, unaware of what was to come, threw away most of Vivian Maier's personal papers. Slattery put a selection of the photographs on the internet but attracted little interest. Prow sold a big portion of his collection to the art dealer Jeffrey Goldstein.
In 2008 Maier slipped on some ice while out for a walk in downtown Chicago. Although expected to recover, her health failed to bounce back and she found herself in a nursing home where she died in April 2009. John Maloof had been trying to track down the elusive Maier without any luck, and when he finally got a hit on google, it was Maier's obituary. Later that year, Maloof set up a blog and published a series of Maier's work, which he linked to her obituary. It went viral, and interest in the photographer surged.
The release of a second documentary has cast light on a troubling row at the centre of the Vivian Maier story. John Maloof owns 90% of Maier's work, and has co-directed the latest documentary - a critically acclaimed examination of the woman behind the camera. However, Ron Slattery and Randy Prow argue that Maloof is trying to airbrush them from the story. An American academic criticized Maloof for giving himself the starring role in the documentary: "Unlike the BBC production, I don’t consider Finding Vivian Maier a documentary film about Maier at all. It is a film about Maloof and his quest to ‘find’ this woman – he films himself talking about his experiences and even shows himself setting up his cameras while he lays out her possessions...The way he handled this very private woman’s belongings made me feel very uncomfortable."
The Vivian Maier story raises important questions about the concept of 'ownership' in art, especially in a case like this when the art in question is only coming to light after the artist's death. Three men, predominately Maloof, get to decide what the public see and what they don't. They are the editors and curators of Maier's work, and they benefit from her talent financially, but in other ways too. Both Maloof and Goldstein stamp their names onto the back of her photographs.
What would Vivian Maier have thought of her cult status? Many of the people who knew have remarked that she would have hated it. I sometimes wonder if the reason she didn't show anybody her work was because she doubted her talent, or because she just didn't care. Perhaps it was just about the moment for her, the thrill of stumbling across a scene or a person that sparks something within you, and having the ability to capture it. Given the speed with which she must have worked, her composition is astonishing. Her strike-rate is astonishing. Her street photography, full of humour and often focused on the grotesque, is the equal of Diane Arbus. And given the reaction of certain sections of the art-world to her work - MOMA are particulary sniffy, apparently - perhaps she was right to want nothing to do with it.
It's hard not to buy into the myth surrounding Vivian Maier - after all, this is a woman who traveled, by herself, around Asia in 1960 - in those days a pretty brave and unusual thing to do, but I think this is an instance where the myth-creating machine should pipe down, and let the work speak for itself. For Vivian Maier had quite a voice.