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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.