Archive for February 15th, 2011

I adore a good mystery. I relish a jigsaw-like story where I only know some of the fragments and have to piece them together carefully, squinting to try and envision the complete image.

When I found out about the artist Henry Darger, for example, I was fascinated – this man lived what many would have considered a sad, lonely life, but behind closed doors he created what posthumously became some of the most celebrated examples of outsider art.

The newly emerged story of Vivian Maier, then, is just the sort of mystery that gets my nose twitching.


All photographs taken by Vivian Maier, taken from http://vivianmaier.blogspot.com/. Copyright of Maloof Collection

What we know about Vivian is this: she was a nanny; she spoke with a French accent; she lived in Chicago for part of her life; she was well-read, interested in art and culture…and she took some of the most beautiful street photographs you will ever see.

Copyright Maloof Collection

And we know this, too – that her talent was secret until after her death; and that there are still thousands more of her photographs yet to be developed.

We can thank Chicagoan John Maloof for bringing Vivian’s work to us. Back in 2007, he was a 26-year-old real estate agent and co-authoring a book about his local neighbourhood. He went to an auction looking for material for this book and bought a box, filled with negatives, from a repossessed  storage locker , thinking there may be some photos of the local suburbs inside.

What he found inside the box (which cost him $400) were 30,000 negatives, all of street scenes from Chicago and beyond.  These photographs stunned him, so much so that he contacted the buyers of the other boxes and bought them all from them. That made him the owner of around 100,000 negatives and boxes of undeveloped film – all taken by a person whose name he didn’t even know.

One day, John found the name ‘Vivian Maier’ scribbled on a photo-lab envelope stuffed inside one of the boxes. Mystery (almost) solved. He wanted to meet Vivian, to tell her how beautiful he found her work, to ask her what inspired her and if she could teach him how to take such enchanting photographs. He says on his blog:

“It took me days to look through all of her work. It inspired me to pick up photography myself. Little by little, as I progressed as a photographer, I would revisit Vivian’s negatives and I would “see” more in her work. I bought her same camera and took to the same streets soon to realize how difficult it was to make images of her caliber. I discovered the eye she had for photography through my own practice. Needless to say, I am attached to her work.”

But John and Vivian never met.

Vivian had slipped on ice just months before the boxes of her work were sold, and after a spell in a nursing home, she died, at the age of 83.

Through his own research, John was able to wipe the dust off his own mental picture of Vivian and her life. He discovered she was born in New York in 1926, and lived in France and New York growing up. By her mid-20s, she was living permanently in the US, where she worked for a number of different families as a nanny.

The families who she worked with told John that Vivian was a feminist, an independent woman with an appetite for travel and a love for movies. She entertained the children by bringing them on ‘adventures’. She wore men’s clothes and was seen by some as a bit of an eccentric.  In a move that was unusual at the time, she journeyed alone in 1959, and captured her travels on her trusty Rolleiflex camera, in Egypt, Bangkok, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, France, Italy,  Indonesia and beyond.

She took hundreds of thousands of photographs, but she never showed them to anyone.

She collected binders and filled them with newspaper clippings; she amassed a large collection of books on photography.

Vivian has been described as aloof, and perhaps it was this aloofness that enabled her to capture the images she did. I picture her slinking into a crowd and remaining unseen, allowing her to snap moments in time that the average person may miss in a blink.

Her photographs, like her life, leave you with questions.

Who are these people? Did they know they were being photographed? Where were they going? What were they thinking?

Copyright Maloof Collection

Copyright Maloof Collection

Copyright Maloof Collection

I love that Vivian photographed all elements of society, from fur-wearing rich dames to scruffy, dirty-clothes-wearing children. The faces of these people are black, white, old, young, lined, untroubled, calm, agitated.

Copyright Maloof Collection

Copyright Maloof Collection

Copyright Maloof Collection

Copyright Maloof Collection

The best photography hits you in your heart. You don’t need to be an expert in composition to know that these photographs that the mysterious Vivian Maier took are simply stunning. Through her, we are given a glimpse into American life fifty years ago. Vivian makes this time come alive, makes you gasp at the beauty that can be found on a downtown street.

Copyright Maloof Collection

It’s no surprise to hear that John Maloof has become totally dedicated to preserving the work of Vivian Maier. He and Anthony Rydzon spend four to five days a week scanning her negatives on expensive equipment that John bought himself – but it will take years for their work to be complete.

The two men are currently working on a book and film about Vivian, and have set up a Kickstarter fund to raise money. Thanks to them, Vivian’s work has an audience that she may never have dreamed of.

Of course, the fact that Vivian was so private begs the question: would she want her work made public like this?

This excerpt from a tape recording made by Vivian provides, for me, the answer:

“Well I suppose nothing is meant to last forever; we have to make room for other people, it’s a wheel. You get on and you get off at the end. And then somebody has the same opportunity to get to the end and so on.”

Beauty is truth, truth beauty. But perhaps mystery is the most beautiful of all.

Vivian Maier’s photography will be shown at the London Street Photography exhibition from 7 – 17 July 2011.

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How is #Ge11 for you?

A political boys' club?

How is the election campaign for you?  Feeling anyway inspired or reminded in a positive way about the role of  women in Irish society?  The role that women will have in renewing Ireland, One Ireland, Real Ireland, Getting Ireland working again?  (Yes I’ve swallowed one too election slogans – I promise to lay off them for a bit).

I could spend a few hundred words talking about the 15% of candidates who are female, the lack of consideration of gender by many parties in their manifestos despite the wringing of hands saying that we must do something about it.  But anytime I try to raise these issues I get shouted down or endure mild abuse for daring to point out all male panels, the lack of inclusion of women’s issues never mind women’s voices, the cheek of thinking that there might be women’s issues in the first place – you get the picture. Or maybe you don’t.

Anytime I ponder on the fact that the Ireland I see in this election campaign is not reflective of my life, my society, my friends or my view of equality and inclusion in society, I am told there are far more urgent problems to be addressed and ‘we are all people’.

If we were all people then the people we were seeing running for election would be a mix of genders, abilities, ethnicities and abilities.  The issues we would be discussing would be about all of us and all our opportunities and not those who happening to be able to pay income tax or want to do so.  Those who can’t pay tax because they don’t earn money or can’t earn income are not represented or talked about in this campaign. The women who don’t have their own incomes are not talked about in this campaign, the women ‘at home’ raising children or caring for others, or the women without homes.

I don’t feel like talking about political reform because I believe that debate to be elitist and disillusioning.  I would like my political representatives to acknowledge the crisis that is our society and its lack of visibility of anyone other than male economists, politicians and bankers.

I don’t want to hear about quotas and how good or bad they are – men won’t let them happen, many women don’t want them to happen.  And it does not actually show how much of a crisis we are facing and ‘existing’ in with regards to the lack of female leadership in the other ‘crisis’.

Before February 25th I would like to hear leaders talk about women without patronising us or forgetting us, about the many different cultures who live in Ireland who are not being heard in this debate (notice how white and male we have become suddenly?)

The campaign linguistics are all about leadership and gendered leadership, about being aggressive or not aggressive enough, about appearing presidential (which is now code for male) about turning up for debates (code for being macho).  Women where we do see them are pointed to and mocked for being screechy, fighting to get heard and not being macho enough.

Male, pale and stale.  And unlikely to change anytime soon and that’s before we think about the devastation that the EU/IMF deal will have on our public expenditure and the women who work within and rely upon for so many supports.  Because we are not supposed to look at things in a gendered gaze anymore, that’s the message I’m picking up in #GE11 and it’s not an Ireland I want to be part of.

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