Finding Vivian Maier


In an era of the selfie and social mass media where every moment of daily personal life is on public display in an endless, narcissistic parade of mediocrity, the photography of Vivian Maier is a dazzling discovery. The fascination with a woman who by reputation led a life closed to others, did not seek to share her work with the world and had no interest in courting fame isn’t how we expect a Great Artist , or even the average Joe with a Smartphone to behave. The story of John Maloof Finding Vivian Maier in this documentary is an unfolding puzzle; a detective story and journey of fortune we would all like to project ourselves into. The chance find of a box filled with negatives at an auction, the global platform of Flickr and the democracy of Google searches made finding Maier possible and seemingly within the reach of everyone. Maloof’s tenacity and obsession to uncover the artist’s life and work is the driving force of the film, working through storage lockers of her life, chasing leads through receipts and images, trying to piece together the woman and the artist. Establishing the Maloof Collection which now contains 90% of her archive, touring exhibitions, producing publications, prints, and sharing her remarkable images with the world online has no doubt saved the artist’s work from obscurity and potential destruction. The commercial aspect of sharing the work is also essential in revealing the vast collection of undeveloped film Maier left behind. A letter to a French film developer found in her possessions reveals that she did want to print the vast “pile” of material and that she recognised her work was “good”. Maier was intensely prolific, leaving behind 2000 undeveloped Black & White films, 700 undeveloped colour films, 100,000 negatives, 8mm and 16mm films, audio recordings and collectibles. The reluctance of major museums to acknowledge the artist as part of a canon of Great Artists/Photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Atget, Lisette Model, Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus and Robert Frank or become involved in the archiving process is perhaps due( as Maloof suggests) to the vast amount of undeveloped material that she never had the chance to see and edit herself. Even though many photographers don’t print their own work the choice of what to print usually lies with the creator of the image and is part of the authenticity of the edition. It is thrilling to contemplate the scanning of negatives and development of film that will one day reveal the full breadth and depth of Maier’s oeuvre. Whether she intended it or not, her work is now in the public domain on a scale that in the 20th Century would have been unfathomable.

The enigma of the artist is a central preoccupation in John Maloof and Charlie Siskels’ documentary and in the public imagination. The testimonies of former employers and childhood recollections of Maier as a nanny are frequently contradictory, as memories often are; a complex and fluid narrative of perceived facts, remembrance, imagination and embellishment, becoming legend. By the end of the film I was craving more of the insight offered by the beautifully perceptive Joel Meyerowitz (the only Artist/Photographer interviewed in the film) and a return to the primary source of Maier’s images. This insistence on Maier as an unknowable enigma is something of a red herring when we return to her original work. Like all Great Artists/Photographers and unlike the average Joe with a Smartphone she didn’t just take photos. She needed to make images and was compelled to do so, honing her grasp of the frame, time, herself and the outside world in the process, grappling with what it is to be human. What makes her work so extraordinary isn’t the visible absence of human connection but the abundance of connections within it. Maier’s compositions demonstrate acute awareness of self and human relationships; she made people on the margins of society resoundingly visible, had a conscience in relation to social inequality and the courage to confront her own shadow self. As Joel Meyerowitz suggests, she was seeing how close she could get with every shot. In her work there is beauty, deprivation, humour, irony, delight, moments of trust, genuine exchange and always a wellspring of curiosity.

The universal human need to document, commemorate, celebrate and memorialise moments of recognition in our lives has always been entwined with the transience of human life and mortality in the Art of Photography. Describing herself as “sort of a spy” Maier recorded off guard moments; people with all their artifice and vulnerabilities, including her own. Her image of Audrey Hepburn at the Chicago premiere of My Fair Lady at the Palace Theatre, October 23, 1964 (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 3, VM19XXW02129-11-MC) reduces the world around the star to a blur, her expression wishing herself away from the limelight and capturing a universal human experience of levelling loneliness. Maier was a master of composition and her self-portraits are amongst the most complex and revealing of the genre. Self Portrait, 1954 (Maloof Collection, Self Portraits Portfolio, VM1954W00130-07-MC) is an image of multiple reflections and framed layers of association. At first we are drawn to the gaunt reflection of Maier’s face and torso in a silver tray, part of a store window display; the cold heightened tone of metal and held gaze, like a prisoner behind bars, immediately drawing the eye to the centre of the image. The security mesh across the window presents a psychological dimension, the certainty of the foreground out of focus and the core of the image/self in sharp reflection. Her expression is blankly penetrating and melancholic; a hint of resignation in the downturned corner of the mouth, aiming for steadfastness but plainly vulnerable. Maier’s Rolleiflex camera held at chest height is just visible; a lens, within a reflection, within a window within the still frame. Another reflection of her torso in the store window with her head cropped off presents a disembodied and dispossessed, but arrestingly calculated image; a line of closed black curtain providing the evasive ground for the exploration. The image is uneasily direct, the polished silver at odds with the thin face we see contemplating herself and fortune’s wheel in reflection. In framing this shot, Maier also simultaneously holds the gaze of the viewer, caught in a moment and for all time. In this moment the artist records and transcends herself. In the act of seeing the viewer becomes aware of the universality and the intricate layers of intimacy and defence that make us human.

Self Portrait May 5th, 1955 (Maloof Collection, Self Portraits Portfolio) is an image of incredible depth which lays bare the act of seeing through the eye/lens. The artist stands confidently, hands on hips, directly meeting the viewer’s gaze with the piercing precision of mirrored perspective, extending the reach of the shot to a heightened state of awareness. The alignment of mirrors creates a scene which is brilliantly focused and simultaneously flooded with expansive, illuminating light. The tonality in Maier is the light and dark of the human soul. The presence of the shadow self as observer perhaps reflects Maier’s occupation on the edge of family life and the isolation pursuit of seeing can bring. It reminds me of a lyric from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George where the painter Seurat reflects on the emotional state of creativity, watching the rest of the world through a window as “the only way to see”. In Self Portrait 1955 (The Maloof Collection, Self Portraits Portfolio, VM1955W02784-03-MC) Maier’s distinctive silhouette in a dated hat and oversized coat are part of the shadow bisecting the composition, part of the city largely unseen. Human presence in absence or in psychologically framed objects is a fascinating element in Maier’s work. In New York, NY (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 2, VM19XXW04205-09-MC) the artist captures still drifting smoke from an abandoned chair blackened by fire, charred but standing defiantly on the street corner beside a neighbouring trash can. It’s a moment of truth and unexpected beauty in discarded found material, the detritus of people’s physical, emotional and psychological lives.

In Self Portrait, 1954 (Maloof Collection, Self Portraits Portfolio, VM1954W00106-05-MC) a horseshoe crab is positioned at the centre of the artist’s shadow torso, a carapace of hardened protection where the heart should be. In Undated (Maloof Collection, Self Portraits Portfolio, VM19XXW03470-06-MG) we see a pile of fallen leaves occupying the same position, an acknowledgement of cycles of growth and decay which affect us all. Maier’s reputed aversion to physical contact, insistence on padlocked rooms where she stayed and hoarding behaviour; accumulating boxes and boxes of material, creating rooms stacked with newspapers like padding with narrow walkways between, suggests Obsessive Compulsive and lifelong coping behaviours in response to loss and trauma. Although much is spoken of Maier’s aversion to human society and relationships, she is described as “a loner”, “a spinster”, “childless”, a distinctly feminine figure of loneliness; her images reveal many points of connection between the artist and the human subjects she photographed. The absence of marriage, children and romantic relationships is a fixation unique to discussion of female artists and obscures consideration of the true value and depth of their work. Examining Maier’s original work in detail is infinitely more insightful and revealing than the multiple testimonies of people who thought they knew her. Maier was a defiant survivor, fiercely intelligent and visually literate; this is abundantly clear in her work. She managed to carve out an existence through an occupation that gave her a roof over her head and the relative freedom to continue to take photographs. The relationship with her employers was always precarious, dependent on the benevolence and understanding of the families she worked for; her contribution to family life, largely invisible and poorly paid. Her identification with people on the margins of society and in poverty is incredibly articulate and true. Typically shot from chest height the human figure in the Street Portfolios of the Maloof Collection elevate the human figure from a position of disadvantage and dispossession to a position of dignity, self-possession and power. There is the sense of the artist meeting the gaze of the subject and acknowledging the presence of the other that is immediately tangible. In those moments Maier wasn’t hiding behind her camera, there is an openness and warmth communicated in her work that is absolutely invested in life and human empathy. The Street Portfolios are filled with examples of the artist meeting the gaze of her human subjects with equality; acknowledging the unique qualities of the individual, regardless of class, age, race or circumstance. Undated (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 2, VM19XXWO3160-03-MC), an image of a young woman leaning out of a car window is illuminated by the warmth of her smile in exchange with the artist and the viewer. May 1953, New York, NY (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 1, VM1953W03398-08-MC) communicates a moment of intimacy, poignancy and exposure, an elderly man’s life experience written in his eyes meeting the photographer’s. Composed with arresting grace and radiating inner dignity Maier’s image of an elderly woman; May 16 1957, Chicago, IL (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 3, VM1957TW03435-10-MC) is another beautiful example of the connection made primarily through the eye and then the lens. Her image of a young girl Undated (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 2, VMPIXXW03160-05-MC) standing with her arms folded in a defensive stance; dirty face, tousled hair and tears in her eyes is an image of youth, age and streetwise experience reflecting the human subject and the photographer. In the background a store window full of lifeless adult sized gloves are juxtaposed with the stature of the young girl, her expression and demeanour strikingly assured beyond her years, defiantly strong yet emotionally fragile.

Maier had a highly observant and ironic eye for framing the relationships between human beings in all their complexity. There are moments of tenderness such as April 7, 1960 (Maloof Collection, Street 1 Portfolio, M196W03443-04-MC) where she captures an elderly couple who have fallen asleep on a bus; his hat sheltering her face which is nestled in the hollow of his shoulder, an image of habitual comfort and unconscious affection. In July 27 1954, New York, NY (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 3,VM1954W03415-04-MC) we see only the patterns and textures of clothing and the entwined hands of a couple from behind, the contrasting skin of their forearms revealing their relativity to each other. In terms of a public display of affection caught on camera the image subverts expectations. Another image of a couple in what is presumably a Central Park horse drawn carriage; March 27, 1953, New York, NY (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 1, VM1953W00564-03-MC) is ironically pristine in its framing. In close up it could easily be a fairytale scene from a Vogue photo shoot, an immaculately dressed young woman inclines her head towards her handsome companion, listening intently to what he is saying. The view however is at a distance, Maier pulls back so that we see the confines of the black carriage and the company sign on the door that reads; “Safety”, “Comfort” and “Service”. In December21, 1961, Chicago, IL. (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 1, VM1961W00847-03-WC) we see a group of bystanders gathered around a woman who has collapsed on the street, being tended to by police officers. Within this group one woman puts her hand to her face in shock, her brow furrowed with concern, another looks down and seems to see herself in the fallen figure. Two others look away into the distance, thinking of something else. The emotional trajectories in this work are fascinating, complex and contradictory. Maier was drawn to such scenes on the street like a journalist or war photographer. Like all great Street Photographers she simultaneously achieves necessary distance and human connection.

Maier captured human tragedy, accidents, violence, abject poverty and people, especially children in states of emotional distress; visual headlines for all that human beings are capable of. But there is also undeniable humour, delight and joy in her images. In Jan 1956 (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 1,VM1956W03408-10-MC) a pair of shoes amongst a line of canned sliced peaches peek out from beneath the curtain of a shop window, 1960. Chicago,IL (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 1, VM1968-9W03408-10-MC) captures the expression of an expectant poodle seemingly waiting for a call beneath a payphone and the colour shot Undated (Maloof Collection, Colour Portfolio, VM19XXZ06928-20-MC) of someone half disappeared into a hedge is comically surreal. The wonderful Self Portrait, New York, February 3 ,1955 (Maloof Collection, Self Portraits Portfolio, VM1955W03420-50-MC)of Maier smiling in the reflection of a tilted mirror being placed onto a removal truck is another shining example of her imagination, playfulness and wit. Even with the human subject removed Maier’s compositions are filled with beauty, light and dark. 1963. Chicago, IL (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 3, VM1963W00765-11-MC) is a supremely balanced composition; a central elongated puddle reflecting neon signage in the distance, drawing the eye into its depth and luminosity. Framing the image at the top of photograph is a sign that invites the viewer to “Come Fly With Me”. Maier’s compositional skills are richly evidenced in more abstract works such as September 1956 (Maloof Collection, Street Portfolio 3, VM1956W03430-06-MC) where her eye framing the side of a building with its exposed brickwork delivers a perfect composition of line, tone and texture that would be the envy of any painter. There can be no doubt when looking at her work that she deserves a place alongside the world’s greatest Artists/Photographers. When we return to her images we see not a closed person or a crazed personality, but someone who understood her medium and human beings equally with conscience and awareness. Unfortunately ownership of Maier’s estate is currently being contested by a long lost relative in France and the question of who owns copyright could mean years of litigation, preventing her work from being reproduced or shown in galleries. Whoever gains possession of Maier’s estate, the preservation and restoration of her work must continue. Although the story of Finding Vivian Maier began as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” as more of Maier’s undeveloped film is revealed we must begin to reassess its value, quality and depth in the context of world Art History rather than the limitations of fame and fortune that the define the Contemporary Art World.