Saturday, July 03, 2021

Private eye

An eccentric and secretive nanny posthumously unveiled as an exceptionally talented photographer after the chance discovery of thousands and thousands of negatives, Vivian Maier is an ideal subject for a documentary film. As John Maloof, the man behind the Oscar-nominated Finding Vivian Maier, says, "You always want to know who is behind the work".

The unlikely story begins with Maloof's purely speculative purchase of a box of negatives at auction. Gradually realising that he'd stumbled across something special, he set about buying up the other lots sold off at the same time. A blog displaying a selection of the images initially failed to garner any attention and Maloof had no luck tracking down their creator. But then he came across an obituary - and soon after a Flickr post linking to the blog and asking for advice received an overwhelming response, the story blew up and, having been turned down by MoMA, he staged an enormously successful exhibition at the Cultural Center in Chicago.

Maloof suggests that MoMA's rejection was motivated by a sniffiness towards amateur artists, but more significant is the ethical dimension. Galleries are instinctively wary of exhibiting work posthumously, and in this instance the person pitching the proposal was neither friend nor family. Maloof does seem to acknowledge that some would accuse him of profiting from the exploitation of someone else's art, and he also admits that the intensely private Maier "might have seen this as an intrusion".

Understandably anxious for justification for his promotional project, then, he was desperate for any evidence that she did want to share her work with the wider world but just never got round to it. That evidence emerged with the discovery that she had asked a trusted local photography shop in the small village in the French Alps in which she lived as a child to print her pictures ready for display.

So, what do we learn about the film's subject? That she was a loner and a hoarder, a compulsive collector of mementos and the detritus of life as well as a prolific photographer inseparable from her trusty Rolleiflex. As a nanny in the Chicago area, she was a socialist with a disdainful and sometimes abrasive attitude towards her employers and seized any opportunity to take pictures, even if that meant dragging the kids in her charge around the roughest parts of town (to their parents' disapproval).

According to some of those she looked after, Maier was a Mary Poppins figure with an instinctive affinity with children. But for others, her eccentricity would be better characterised as mental illness, and she had a mean streak, resorting in some instances to violence and force feeding - a darker side to her personality evident in her obsession with true crime stories and her interest in photographing the bizarre and macabre. Such is the risk of digging deep into someone's life - you may not like what you find.

Above all, Maier was zealously protective of her own privacy, despite appearing to have few qualms about using her camera lens to intrude upon the privacy of others. One interviewee recalls her saying "I'm sort of a spy", and suggests that her fondness for using pseudonyms was indicative of someone who "wanted to be someone else". She seems to have actively cultivated an air of mystery and difference, and at one point the documentary is strategically edited to show a host of former acquaintances contradicting each other to underline the fact that none of them really knew her. At the film's conclusion, it's debatable whether Maier has really been found at all.

Thankfully, though, her work was. And whatever you think of the ethics of Maloof's enterprise, surely it's better that, thanks to his tireless labour and tenacity, Maier's extraordinary images - some of them from rolls of film undeveloped in her lifetime, so never seen by the person who took them - are out in the world than languishing in dusty cardboard boxes stacked in a lock-up. They're the creation of a brilliant street photographer, a keen observer of human behaviour with the innate ability to establish an intimate connection with her subjects (even if only fleetingly for the time it took to take a picture). 

According to Mary Ellen Mark, Maier could have had the stature of Diane Arbus or Robert Frank. She may never have courted validation from the art world when she was alive, but she's been granted it in death. As Ella Murtha has said of her photographer mother Tish, "the internet has turned out to be her greatest ally". The same is certainly true for Maier - though Maloof also deserves considerable credit.

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