U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Finding Vivian Maier’s Significance

The following is a guest-post from Brad Baranowski, PhD student at the University of Wisconsin- Madison.

“What photograph isn’t a still life?”
Garry Winogrand

Street photography is undergoing a renaissance today. Not only have more professional photographer returned to the genre and begun to produce works that rivals those of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and other founders of the form. There is also a public interest in street photography like never before.1

Part of this can be chalked up to the work of Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind the “Humans of New York Project.” Stanton alone has already run a hugely popular blog, published a best-selling photography book, and spawned countless imitations. Along with this, the shift of much of photography towards digital over the past twenty five years and the diminishing cost of this technology has rendered street photography—which often involves shooting hundreds of shots to get one presentable frame—more accessible.

But it is the result of the dead just as much as the living that street photography is enjoying its current success. In fact, one of the artists currently attracting much public discussion did the bulk of her work not in the age of online blog and digital photography. She worked with medium format black and white film, shooting only twelve exposures on a roll, and never sharing her work with another artist, let alone with galleries and the wider art world. In fact, she did not even attempt to make a living off of her art. That she did by being a nanny.

Vivian Maier, whose work was only discovered in 2007, is the topic of a new documentary, Finding Vivian Maier. John Maloof co-directed the film and is responsible for having found Maier’s work, which he began to acquire by purchasing a trunk full of negatives at a Chicago area garage sale. Maloof, who is also a street photographer, set out to discover the life lived by this photographer whose photograph he has given a public life. Thus was born the central problem that Finding Vivian Maier tries to tackle, which is itself a problematic one. “Why would a nanny,” Maloof asks near the film’s start, “be taking all these pictures?”

The documentary proceeds to veer into all sorts of anecdotes about Maier’s life, assembled from interviewing her former employers, children she watched, and anyone else with a recollection or two of this mysterious woman. She was French, one interviewee notes: You could tell by her accent. No, that accent was most definitely phony, responds another. She was a kind nanny, reflects one former charge. She was an abusive nanny, says a different one. We called her “Viv,” reflects a pair. We could have never called her that, says a middle-aged respondent. She was a hoarder, most of her former employers substantiate. She was private, all agree. She was sad, many allude.

This all amounts to resembling shards of a long-broken mirror: many of the pieces have gone missing and those that remain reveal more about us than they do about the object of fascination. Maier is dead but here we are, the public she never sought, staring at her life and work, wondering agape at why she never shared her brilliance with us. What was wrong with her, a question the film almost outright asks throughout: We would have hailed her as a great artist had she brought these prints forth!

Perhaps she would have been. Maier’s work is undoubtedly brilliant. But the film obscures this, merely flashing a series of Maier’s photos for a few seconds at various intervals of the documentary, but mostly at the beginning. Instead, the film is largely taken up with Maloof’s effort to track down Maier’s story. This brings to the fore two anxieties that consume the documentary.

The first anxiety is present in the problematic nature of Maloof’s opening question. Rose Lichter-Marck has noted it well in her excellent review of the film in the New Yorker. This one revolves around issues of status and gender. It is inconceivable to the producers of and people in the film that a nanny would be so brilliant an artist and remain simply as “the help,” Lichter-Marck notes. “In the film,” Lichter-Marck continues, “domestic work is placed in opposition to artistic ambition, as if the two are incompatible. But are they? Street photographers are often romanticized as mystical flâneurs, who inconspicuously capture life qua life, who are in the world, but not of it. The help, like the street photographer, is supposed to be invisible.”2 In fact, maybe this invisibility made her a great street photographer because it kept the art world from creating a persona through which all her work would be viewed—or not viewed, as the case often is, but simply referred to.

The second anxiety involves the issue of ownership. Maloof goes to great lengths throughout the movie to assuage what seems like a guilty conscience on his part. The recurring question he asks his interviewee is what Maier would have thought of all the attention now being paid to her. She would have hated it, many who knew her reply until near the end of the film when someone notes that Maier’s posthumous fame is probably for the best. After all, she was able to protect her privacy and become a great artist. An unasked question is whether or this situation protects her art.

Meanwhile, we follow Maloof to a photo lab where a fresh batch of Maier’s prints awaits and hear him reflect on how he wishes that he could share the money with her. But that is impossible, of course. Another unasked question left for the audience to ponder: Who should profit from the work of an artist who, in her lifetime, did not attempt to profit from it all?

These mistakes are regrettable. Barring the difficulties presented by the absence of any clear wishes on the part of the deceased, Maier’s work is well-worth cherishing and celebrating. A documentary that does that should be made. But the current film’s errors are noteworthy for those interested in the works of artists, philosophers, writers, poets, and others. The significance is in the body of evidence that Finding Vivian Maier largely overlooks, and in that fact of this oversight, as it attempts to piece her story back together: the photos.

The question that matters in finding Vivian Maier’s significance is not, why did a nanny take all these photos? At the risk of sounding simplistic, she took them because the images mattered to her. She seemed to enjoy the process of street photography and she demonstrated a deep interest in the wide variety of people around her. The photos were at least as integral to her life as were the various positions as nanny and mounds of newspaper clippings that she hoarded. Ask this instead: what can be understood by looking at her photos?

To answer this means understanding what a photo can understand. Jerry L. Thompson, the last principal assistant to Walker Evans, explores this issue in his Why Photography Matters (2013). “Since the Enlightenment,” Thompson notes, “studying the world had meant proposing a model—mathema—and applying the model to the world of experience . . . . The skills you had acquired, whether they were a humanist education or a skill in algebra or calculus (mathema gives us our word mathematics)—these skills were the light you shone upon raw reality, the world.” .3 Photography, however, “opened a door back to ancient epistemology. . . . one leading in the direction of things as they are, a notion that might have made more sense, and have been more appealing, to Aristotle than to Descartes.”4 Photography, in other words, can teach us to understand the world by a process that some might not call understanding at all: not by picking reality apart or applying a model to it but by taking up the much more difficult task of dwelling in it.5 An irony, then, is at the art’s core. As the most modern of picture-making arts, it is also the one with the most potential to channel ancient forms of knowing.

Street photography in particular lends itself well to this characterization. In an instant, images in this genre record what is often not even fleeting but rather imperceptible to its subject: the passage of time. Freezing life into a 1/60th, 1/100th, or 1/1000th of a second frame, the street photographer passes his or her subject, often without notice, and elevates a fraction of their time—their story—among others into art. Paradoxically, these exposures in their brevity open up in the flux and flow of street traffic the possibility for the lasting reflection that centers around art: they allow us to understand, as Thompson puts it, what is. The world in which we dwell, one that we are partially responsible for but never fully, is revealed to us, one fraction of a second at a time. Along the way, we see new ways of seeing it, of understanding it, and, even, being in it.

Maier’s work captured hundreds of thousands of moments, a remarkable portion of which even managed to capture what Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment”: that instant where light, form, emotion, space and time all coalesce to elevate the everyday into the extraordinary. The photographer’s skill helps greatly in composing this moment. But the greatest talent showcased in these instants is the ability of a photographer to leave things be and, to some extent allow the moment to compose itself.

101_1Take as an example this photo.6 The scene is of a building being torn down. People gather to watch as the wrecking ball chips away at the upper levels. Even the cars are lined up and in attendance; maybe this demolition will give them a new parking lot. From the visually amusing stances of the people one the street (note that it almost looks like one man is being doused with the hose) to the tiny white speck of a person watching from a fire escape in the upper left-hand corner of the frame, Maier captures it all.

Yet while Maier makes this picture, the elements of the image are composing their own photo. The onlookers, for instance, are both viewing an act of destruction as well as an act of creation. They see not only the fruits of the construction workers’ labors in the rubble on the ground. They also see a new way of seeing the city. The skyline to which this crumbling building once belonged is now framed by the doomed edifice and presented to those on the street. Their everyday is thus turned into art; their walk down the street is transformed into a stroll through a gallery. But it is done so not by an artist. Rather, it is the same everyday processes of life and death that compose and capture a decisive moment. That the whole scene is also vaguely sexual—the wrecking ball and tower in the background both phallic imagery—adds to the sense that a new scene is being produced amidst this demolition. What Maier contributes to all this is the ability to dwell for a bit longer in the otherwise impermanent scene—to appreciate the significance of this impromptu and unintentional moment of everyday art on another day.

To recall Thompson again: “Photographs are made by personalities. But any person . . . is only a medium, a messenger. What sounds through—what shows through—is the message. The message is what is.”7 The significance of Vivian Maier as a phenomenon begins in that which is and Maier’s way of revealing it to us, not in the shards of anecdotes that constitute the film’s understanding of her life. If we are truly curious about what was Maier’s life, we should linger here, in the work, and think about her biography from that vantage point. After all, as the hundreds of thousands of photographs testify, Maier certainly lived much of her life in those scenes.

1 For a treatment of this newfound interest as well as a collection photographers’ works that constitute the renaissance, see Sophie Howarth, Stephen McLaren, Street Photography Now (London: Thames and Hudson, 2012).

2 Rose Lichter-Marck, “Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women”, The New Yorker, May 10, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2014/05/vivian-maier-and-the-problem-of-difficult-women.html?utm_source=www&utm_medium=tw&utm_campaign=20140510

3 Jerry L. Thomson, Why Photography Matters (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 13.

4 Ibid., 82-83.

5 For those who think that this matter is simple, consider Heidegger’s (whom Thompson consults) remarks: “The real swelling plight lies in this, that mortals ever search anew for the nature of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell.” Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, “Buildling, Dwelling, Thinking,” (New York: Harper Perennial, 2001), 159.

6 John Maloof, ed., Vivian Maier:Street Photographer (Brooklyn, NY: PowerHouse Books, 2011), 48.

7 Thompson, 86.