You’d have to be a Touareg tribesperson or deep sea-dwelling creature not to have been alerted to the Vivian Maier phenomenon in the last year or so. The nanny who took at least one Rolleiflex film roll of pictures a day for 30 years and never once exhibited a shot has become big business since the ‘discovery’ of her work by several men from Chicago around 2007 when her vast horde of personal possessions, mainly kept in locked storage, became available for auction. The tens of thousands of negatives which detail her compulsive recording of street scenes - not just from New York and Chicago but also around the globe – now form the basis of a canon of work that is being acclaimed as a lost photographic treasure. Finding Vivian Maier is the second of two documentaries made in the last 18 months to examine both the pictures and, more importantly to those selling you the films, the mysterious back-story that comes attached. It’s a very good film indeed, but what does it tell us about the way in which we create mythology around ‘artists’? About the reasons we take photography? About the nature of art, itself? A lot, as it turns out…
Actually, Finding Vivian Maier most eminently tells us most about the untrustworthy nature of eyewitnesses. Obviously every documentary is fraught with the danger of unreliable narrative, whether it’s in the interviewees’ tales or in the post-production and editing. Within about three minutes Finding Vivian Maier throws up an obvious challenge to credibility by both placing the film’s co-director (and owner of the vast bulk of Maier’s legacy), John Maloof, as central narrator and then by showing us a fabricated sequence to demonstrate him bidding for the legendary boxes of negatives in the auction house (in the BBC’s marginally earlier documentary it’s revealed that Maloof actually won the lot with an ‘absentee bid’ and therefore wasn’t even there at the sale). So hackles are immediately up for anyone who labours under the misapprehension that a documentary tells a tale objectively. For me, the initial resistance was also aided by the fact that Maloof comes across as humourless as well as bearing an uncanny resemblance to a grown-up Phineas Flynn from Phineas and Ferb, but that’s neither here nor there. After the first half an hour Maloof (and fellow director, Charlie Siske) have mostly edged themselves out of the narrative and let the plethora of first-hand accounts of Maier, her eccentricities and work take centre stage.
In doing so Maloof teases out a compelling account; not necessarily of Maier’s own life, but of the lives of the middle classes who gave her a home and allowed her to record their lives alongside her own darker record of street life in America’s major metropolises. Her earliest position work as a nanny - for the Ginsberg family and their three sons – draws the fondest recollections. This was where the obsessively private Vivian came closest to forming permanent bonds with both parents and children and her shots of their leafy lives in the suburbs are a glowing testament to a USA in the midst of its most optimistic period, just before the fall. Contrasted with her later charges – when not only her own circumstances were reduced, but also following the catastrophic events of the late ‘60s onwards – she emerges as self-possessed, politically engaged and as someone who was actually very good with children.
Again and again commentators are wheeled on to contradict each other. Especially hilarious is the pompous academic who states with absolute certainty that her French accent was fake (her mother was French and she actually lived in France between the ages of six and 12) – even challenging Maloof to read his dissertation on the pronunciation of French vowels (no, really).
But it’s here that any discussion about Maier becomes problematic. For Vivian’s tale is that of a non-artist, made an artist posthumously: a woman who deliberately coveted her own anonymity during her own lifetime and who, as various people state, would have probably hated any whiff of fame or validation. As one letter reveals, she knew she was a gifted photographer, even in her early days, but she never actively sought the recognition which supposedly drives ‘true’ artists in their lifetimes. So is the ‘Maier industry’ (as Alan Yentob calls it in the BBC’s film of her life) a bogus one? Maloof’s answer is to paint himself a loner who battled the art establishment who resisted her acceptance into the history books. It’s the film’s biggest failing, simply because it perpetuates the age-old fascination with creative people who were ‘cruelly’ ignored by their contemporaries.
The idea of a photographer who deigns to share his or her work is doubly ironic in the 21st century, of course. In an age where we clamour for attention, and share everything while beset by dilettantism on every side (even in this blog), the tale of a woman who not only shrouded herself in mystery – even to the point of lying about her origins and regularly changing the spelling of her name – but also seemed blissfully unaware that her exceptional talent could have perhaps paved the way for a career seems so, well… romantic. Again and again we’re asked ‘so who was this woman?’ up to the point where I felt I knew more about her than I’d ever known about, say, Diane Arbus or Lisette Model, both of who’s work Maier had to know of.
Let’s be clear here: while her pictures are extraordinary, they are by NO means original. A fact no one seems prepared to explore. But naturally, the desire to create a sweeping tragic narrative only serves to get in the way of the work itself. Like Vincent Van Gogh’s ear, her eccentricity serves as a lazy way to understand what may, or may not, be a collection of masterpieces. And if you add to this the startling fact that when her work was unearthed she was still alive (and fading away in a Chicago hospital) it all starts to reek of creepy opportunism.
And while the story of her life was filled with enough dark family secrets and deliberate obfustication to make it utterly compelling, you sensed that such rooting around would have appalled Maier herself. All the muttering about ‘a dark side’ and the fact that she hated to talk about herself just back up Joel Meyerowitz’s claims that to be a competent street photographer these qualities are not just desirable, but essential. In short: Vivian Maier knew exactly what she wanted and how to get it. Meyerowitz comes across as about the only reliable observer of her work and is the only commonality between the two documentaries made about Vivian. As a photographer he explains the skill and the tenacity it took to get such intimate glimpses of American life. He’s also the only one to question the validity of the editorial choices that go into prints made from negatives never even seen by Maier in her lifetime.
With these facts in mind, I’d argue that the Maier phenomenon is rooted in several wrong-headed notions about art and photography. A lot of what fascinates us with Maier’s work isn’t the startlingly brilliant compositional skills or in the recent trend in clinging to and lionising historicity as some part of tendency to hanker after all things ‘vintage’ (I say recent, but this is a quality in modern post-industrial society that’s been around since before Constable painted his mythical Haywain). You could regard this as ironic as Vivian herself wore what her peers regarded as strangely fusty, old-fashioned clothes: primarily, I suspect, to put her subjects at ease as well as repelling any unwanted male attention. Next is the suspect quality of the bandwagon-jumping which leads to her work now selling for between two and eight thousand dollars apiece. Such instant desirability (painfully highlighted by the late appearance of Tim Roth at a swanky gallery opening where he patronisingly explains why he bought a picture of a hobo, because there’s some ‘joy’ beneath the destitute misery of the subject) is nothing more than the twitchings of an over-privileged few, desperate to be arbiters of taste. But you do sense that Maloof is self-aware enough to realise that in many ways he’s lucked out and not above blame. As fellow owner, Jeff Goldstein, explains about their role in the story in the BBC’s film: ‘we’re mostly just trying not to be public assholes’. Luckily, in Maloof’s film, he’s canny enough to retreat from the fray and let the various factions strut their stuff, leaving us with a film that succeeds because it raises more questions than it answers.
The finest example of this is the way in which you emerge with a far more balanced view of Vivian than the people she actually knew, and this all depends on the period in which she was encountered. In later years, if you are to believe the families’ accounts, she was batty, belligerent and borderline abusive. But taken against the obvious issues displayed by the more self-obsessed and tricky children of the ‘70s (and parents, especially in the case of the last family she worked for), one comes away with a feeling that this was a woman who had spent a life only in the service of others so that she could pursue her true calling: the recording of life around her with an exceptional eye, a sense of humour and a deep understanding of the precarious nature of life. It’s no wonder that, as she grew older, her status as a permanent outsider, combined with the fact that the families she worked for became less well-balanced, finally ground her down. This is reflected in the fact that she allowed the Ginsbergs to call her ‘Viv’ whereas the bratty later charges were only allowed ‘Miss Maiers’ (note the added ‘s’). I would imagine that by the late ‘70s she knew that she would die alone and in relative poverty, but this was a price she was willing to pay in the service of a greater muse.
In comparison Alan Yentob’s Imagine series BBC doc - Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny's Pictures - is predictably woeful. As with all of this criminally vanity project-like series, it’s redolent with the diminutive, inflated ego of Yentob although, to be fair, he’s far less prominent than usual. But one senses that it’s he who pushes the first half’s obsession with the bargain-hunter aspect of the ‘Maier industry’. Like a miniature, even more egomaniacal, David Dickinson he keeps probing the owners of Vivian’s legacy (here represented by Ron Slattery and Jeff Goldstein: Maloof was making his own film simultaneously) as to how much money they paid for (and subsequently made on) the pictures and boxes of ephemera. Luckily, just as it really seems as though Yentob is presenting us with a bourgeois version of Storage Hunters, the film finally gets around to giving us some interesting facts which, when tallied with Maloof’s (far better) film make for interesting contrast.
Yet, if there’s one aspect that the BBC version of events excels in, it’s the chronology and background to Vivian’s self-education in photography. You get no sense from Maloof that Vivian ever paid attention to other photographers whereas she not only lived with another female photographer in her early years, but she was known to have studied the masters. And Maloof’s slant of anti-academia is belied by the fact that he was allegedly alerted to the worth of the treasure trove he unearthed by a ‘Californian Art Professor’, according to Ron Slattery, as well as the appearance of at least two heavyweight ‘Maier scholars’.
However as an earlier (and visibly rushed) work it mostly fails. Falling even more egregiously into the trap of ‘background story’ it ends up feeling not unlike a Catherine Cookson novel; full of illegitimate children and disgraced chambermaids. What it fails to mention is that just about every family under the sun has such skeletons clogging up their closet; especially in the turmoil of the early 20th century. One ends up confused as to whether this is a soap opera-cum-detective tale or a film about the arts – something which has beset so many recent documentaries (cf: Looking for Sugarman another film which obsesses over the romantic myth of the undiscovered genius).
But if you watch both films back-to-back (as I did) you’ll come away with at least a sense that Vivian Maier was neither more eccentric or strange than the majority of us, and that it’s probably far too soon to be heaping her with plaudits or superlatives. One look at her work speaks far more eloquently than any film could, and that’s not only what she would have undoubtedly wanted, but also what she undoubtedly deserves.