Losing Vivian Maier

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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.

8 thoughts on “Losing Vivian Maier

  1. “…….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……..”

    There may be another explanation, and one which I have encountered in some of the people I’ve taught. Their ‘inexperience’ as photographers does not stop them making wonderful images. But their ‘inexperience’ as critics can stop them showing them. Simply, they don’t know they are good.

    The behaviour of Maier might not be selfish, wishing to retain ownership and tightly control visibility, so much as lack of confidence in the worth of her work.

    Seen in this light the accolades of future generations become a celebration of her skills and one she might (or of course might not) revel in!

    • Interesting point about criticism and learning to self-edit, definitely experienced that problem myself.

      Another issue is that I think we tend to assume that photographs are always taken to show and share, and a photograph not used in this way is somehow a failure. At the same time lots of photographers would acknowledge that photography is a passport into places and a way to interact with people one might not otherwise speak to, and I wonder how significant this was in Maier’s motivations for shooting.

      Of course there is no clear answer to any of these questions since the only person who could provide it is dead.

  2. There is no ethical dilemma. Maier abandoned her work. This means she no longer cared about it. She essentially forfeited any roll in her work’s future.

    Before you counter by saying she didn’t; how is not making a decision different than making one? In this case if Maier cared, but couldn’t decide what to do, her default decision was to leave the future of her work to pure chance. If Maier’s introverted or private persona was a high priority, how come she didn’t destroy all of it?

    So we are left with one criticism of those who publish her work. If Maier became mentally ill – literally disabled – then she is being exploited. Otherwise, the photographic world is a better place because of hard work by people who appreciate Maier’s dedication and visual genius.

    • No one plans to die, whether she considered her work abandoned for someone else to find or saw it as something she would return to later but was never able to isn’t something anyone can determine (unless you know better, you seem happy to speak for her).

  3. “Another issue is that I think we tend to assume that photographs are always taken to show and share, and a photograph not used in this way is somehow a failure. ”

    Not sure about that. I’ve worked on mental health projects with using photography and some of the participants use photography as a means of expression, as a way to make sense of the way they feel about themselves, the place the live, the way they feel. Its work in some cases (not all) that is for them, and nobody else.

    I once met a painter who really didn’t care much about his work, the act of doing it, getting ‘out’ whatever was within him, ‘controlling’ the space around him by the process of painting it, preserving it or interpreting it in some way, was what his work seemed to be about.

    He had so much work in the house that at night he had to take a huge pile of canvases off the bed to be able to get in to sleep, returning the pile to the bed the next morning to be able to actually get out of the room.

    The work was wonderful, I have two pieces on my wall, but having it on my, or anyone else’s wall was pretty low on his list of priorities.

    Except in specific cases where someone expressly requests their work be kept out of the public domain, I think any guess at what a deceased person’s feelings about ‘exposure’ of their work might be is simply that – a guess.

    And as mentioned by William, I think having someone’s vision enrich our own is better than not having that work inform us.

    • The painter sounds amazing.

      Taught some similar people, met one producing quite amazing work but very privately, took a while before he’d actually show it to me. But my point is that these people are probably the exception, things like social media encourage sharing almost as part and parcel of the act of creating, quite rare now I think to produce art/images purely for yourself? (although I should add I have work of my own I don’t intend anyone else to ever see, so maybe only appears rare because by definition this work is not shared).

      I’m tempted to agree with your final statement, but I don’t really like where it seems to lead, that communal good derived from the work overrides the (maybe) wishes of the individual producer.

      Anyway, as ever I’m playing devils advocate, I love Maier’s work and I just feel these are things that need to be said.

  4. Amended – typing too fast!

    Not sure about that. I’ve worked on mental health projects using photography and some of the participants use photographs as a means of expression, as a way to make sense of the way they feel about themselves, the way they feel about the place they live. Its work in some cases (not all) that is for them, and nobody else.

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