A documentary is in the works about Vivian Maier, the reclusive Chicago nanny who was ‘discovered’ shortly after her death and has subsequently been hailed as one of the greats of American photography. Over several decades Maier amassed hundreds of thousands of photographs taken on the streets of Chicago and other American cities, photographs which show a rare curiosity and a remarkably developed photographic eye for someone apparently with little or no formal training.
She hoarded these images it seems never showing them to anyone, indeed not even developing many of the films. As she grew older this strange cache was deposited in a storage locker, the contents of which were auctioned after her death and the negatives were picked up more or less by chance by a collector. Recognising them as remarkable images he began to promote them, and they quickly gained attention, leading to exhibitions, publication, and much writing about them. Now as I’ve already mentioned Maier’s story and the story of her ‘discovery’ are set to be unraveled in a new documentary.
I used to be an unquestioning fan of this amazing story, but now I find it increasingly suspect. In all of this, with all these people professing their adoration for Maier and her work everyone seems to be ignoring one fundamental point, that she probably would have hated all this attention. We can only speculate as to why she didn’t show her photographs to anyone, perhaps she simply took them for herself or for the pleasure of photographing, perhaps she didn’t feel they were worth showing, but whatever the reason I feel quite strongly this privacy is something that ought to be respected
If you really admire an artist, a writer, a photographer, part of that admiration recognises the importance of self-determination with regards to their own work. How many creative people had their legacy distorted by the posthumous publication of work they considered substandard, incomplete or not indicative of their style? It’s also particularly problematic in Maier’s case because the decision about what work to show and what to withhold is completely arbitrary, its impossible to know what Maier may have regarded as her best work.
Of course Maier is not a unique example of someone who’s implicit or explicit wishes have been ignored, Kafka famously entrusted his friend Max Brod with the task of burning his papers after his death only to have Brod publish the work regardless, claiming Kafka didn’t really mean what he said. Similarly Larkin requested his papers be burnt after his death, his diaries were but many other documents were not. Many people would argue that we are culturally richer for these betrayals, but they are still betrayals. True there was no explicit agreement between Maier and the present owner of her works, but I’d argue there is a responsibility that comes with ownership of someone else’s work, a contract to faithfully represent the creator.
I love Maier’s photographs, they are beautiful and brilliant works, I find them inspiring, funny, moving. But part of that love for art is respect for the person who made it, including their likely wishes for the work, even if that wish is to keep the work private. If respecting that means no one ever seeing the work again then so be it. Artists and writers don’t owe their audiences anything, particularly when fame has been so uncourted and unexpected as it has been with Maier. It goes without saying that her work is out there now, and cannot be undiscovered, retracted, buried back into storage. Nevertheless I think it’s important to speak when I see something like this that I think is fundamentally wrong.