I recently and accidentally discovered the photography of Vivian Maier (1926 – 2009). This was personally significant for me as I once lived and breathed street photography, went on to study photography at university and subsequently drifted away from it as a medium and art form. I can remember first discovering street photography – as a much younger person – and being very affected by this particular style of image making. Seeing Maier's work was like being jolted to the very core and it forced me to remember the power of photography. There is immediately something compassionate and grounded in the work. Apart from its technical brilliance, Maier connects with her subjects, who often seemed to be the ordinary and regular people on the street. There is a natural and spontaneous quality to her work – a kind of humility, but there is a definite social commentary at play.
I was compelled to learn more about this person. How had I missed her work and not heard anything about her?
Vivian Maier – a self portrait
It transpired that Maier had worked prolifically and methodically for her adult life as a photographer – mostly on the streets of Chicago and New York, but in other cities also. What was surprising was that she had worked as a nanny to make a living and had stored her significant body of work in boxes in a storage locker warehouse. Many of her (over 100,000) films were undeveloped. In addition to medium format and 35mm images, she also made films and audio recordings, and collected found objects. Much of her work was discovered when she was at an advanced age by John Maloof, a former real estate agent who bought some of her negatives at an auction. Other auction-goers also acquired some of her work, but much of the collection now seems to be with Maloof, who seems to have made an effort to reach other buyers and consolidate her belonings, and Jeffrey Goldstein, another Chicago-based collector.
Maloof appears to have made it his life's work to make sure Maier is known and inscribed in the artistic cannon as a major photographic artist. There is absolute merit in this, although some of the claims and narrative that have been constructed, need to be carefully considered and are contested. In a documentary about Maier's life and work, contributions are made by those who knew her and the persons whom she cared for in her work as a nanny. Despite the contested and – at least partly – economically motivated drive to publicise her life and work; a complex, highly-nuanced character emerges. As Maier was claimed to be mainly a very private person, much remains unknown. Pamela Bannos, however, challenges the imposition of this fabricated narrative, and in particular whether Maier's intentions were as has been claimed by the self-appointed, male 'owners' of her work. While I am certainly grateful for being able to see Maier's work, there is a somewhat uncomfortable juncture between making her work known, and the, at least partial undeniably economic motivations behind this.
In any case, I couldn't help myself from being overpowered by her story and the work that I could see. Maier is to have said:
We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel. You get on, you have to go to the end. And then somebody has the same opportunity to go to the end and so on.
It made me incredibly sad to think that she had not been recognised in her lifetime. While it is possible that she may not have wanted to have been 'known', and may not have wanted the attention that would come with that, it feels agonising that her work and talent did not allow her a more comfortable life – it has been suggested she died in poverty. I realise it's problematic to impose these 'values' on a person when in fact Maier may have been content with the way things were and played out. She was clearly fiercely independent, strong and driven to do her work and it is fortunate that we have ultimately been able to discover it.
The depth of talent that Marier possessed is something worth commenting on. These days, 'everyone is a photographer' (sic) to some extent, with a camera in our pockets at the ready and social media platforms that contain a frightening number of images. Some might say, 'sure, she took over 100,000 rolls of film, there are bound to be some good ones'. This could not be further from the truth. After doing some further investigation, the photographic printer who works with Jeffrey Goldstein has remarked on the exceptional quality of her work. She didn't bracket her exposures, or take multiple photographs of a subject: each image was a single, decisive moment, composed in the drama and flow of time on the street. Goldstein's printer remarked that her strength of composition was outstanding, and each roll of film he had seen contains several images that could be printed at book quality.
But there is something else, too. Maier was said to have held resolute political convictions, and had a strong empathy for ordinary people. Looking at her work, whether it was intended for others to see or not, she unavoidably connects with others and makes a strong statement about the political, social and economic reality of the time. Her work expresses her interest in this social dialog and what she records is precise, consuming and benevolent. I would like to think that it was her own personal commentary on the structural inequalities that she witnessed, and continue to be the cornerstone of our existence today.