Vivian Maier

· culture ·

I watched a fascinating documentary some weeks ago about the photographer Vivian Maier. It seems (if you are in the UK), that you’ve got 10 days left to watch the documentary, and I highly recommend it. Vivian was an American woman (with French and Austrian roots) who worked for most of her life as a nanny in Chicago. She was by all accounts a very private person. When asked about her life, she was apt to tell rather tall tales to deflect attention from herself, and while she was an outspoken feminist and socialist, it seems as if no-one really got to know her very well.

While the families she worked for were all well aware of her photographic “hobby”1 — she took her Rolleiflex camera out with her, and often took photographs of the children she looked after — they never saw the photographs until she had died. Indeed, even Vivian saw few of her own photographs. At her death, there were more than 100,000 negatives, but many of the rolls of films were still undeveloped, and she didn’t often make prints. It’s impossible to say for sure why she developed or printed so little: it may have been a lack of money or time, or perhaps the process of pressing the shutter and capturing the photograph in her mind was the main goal. We’ll never know for sure, but in the documentary, they showed sequences of shots on rolls, and it’s striking that there is rarely more than one shot of a particular scene. It’s not as if she was taking multiple shots and selecting the single frame that best captured someone’s expression or a composition (that would be technically difficult with a Rolleiflex anyway). She seems to have watched the world around her with the focus and intensity of a hawk, and then swooped with precision and captured a single shot that froze the perfect moment. She seems to have had such a good eye that I suspect she would have known what the photograph would look like without needing to print it.

For a private person, she was an exceptionally bold photographer. Look at this shot, taken through a window, of a woman talking on a pay phone, a cup of coffee at her left hand. You can see the ghostly reflection of Vivian looking down into the viewfinder of her camera in the window, and see how close she is to her subject. The woman is captured glancing up at her, momentarily surprised at the intrusion on this private conversation. It’s not perfectly in focus, but I think it’s a stunning picture.

She was fascinated by (and had great sympathy for) marginalised people on the fringes of society, and took many arresting portraits, such as this one (you can’t look away from those eyes), or this one. She also captured light, shade and reflection in gorgeous way. She even took self-portraits which are rather enigmatic, my favourite of which is this one: it was such a fleeting opportunity, and you can see the look of pleasure on her face as she knows she’s got it just right.

There’s a sad ending to her story. She became destitute in her late 70s and may have been homeless for a while. Some of her former charges found out about her predicament and bought her an appartment, but meanwhile her photographic archive was being sold off. She had put a lot of her photographic material into a storage locker, and because she defaulted on the rental payments, the contents of one of the lockers was sold off. Through subsequent auctions, the bulk of the material was bought by John Maloof, with Jeffrey Goldstein also acquring a substantial collection.

The documentary was fascinating, but also rather uncomfortable viewing. Vivian was undoubtedly an enormously talented street photographer, but since she didn’t show these photos to anyone while she was alive, would she enjoy the idea of so many people looking at them now? In some ways, this very private person invaded the privacy of those she captured in her photographs, but perhaps she felt able to do this because she knew that only she would see the results (or store them in her head). I don’t know how she would feel about these private moments becoming public.

  1. Her output was so prolific and of such high quality that I feel the need to add the scare quotes around the word hobby. ↩︎