Vivian Maier and the Photograph in the Age of Narcissism

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Vivian Maier: Self Portraits (2013)

On to my desk recently thudded a large book of self-portraits by the American street photographer Vivian Maier. Her story has been widely circulated since she was discovered several years ago but it’s one which deserves a repeat for anyone unfamiliar with it. Born in 1926 Maier lived out her life in obscurity, working as a nanny to a series of families in the Chicago area while spending her spare time walking the city streets, photographing people and places with a remarkably acute eye. In the process she built up an enviable body of work, which she seems to have made no serious attempt to publicise, exhibit, or even share with the few people she had prolonged contact with.

Towards the end of her life Maier’s collection of negatives and a large number of undeveloped films were put into storage, and when payment of that storage locker lapsed the contents were auctioned off. The majority of her negatives ended up in the hands of a local historian named John Maloof, with a number of other negatives also later coming into the possession of art collector Jeffrey Goldstein. Maier died not long afterwards, and before Maloof – who had started to recognise the significance of her work – was able to make contact with her. Maloof started to put Maier’s photographs online, where they began to attract enormous attention. He has since exhibited them widely, published several books, directed a documentary and made Maier’s photographs available for sale as limited edition prints.

It’s nothing particularly new for a hitherto unknown artist or photographer to be suddenly discovered. There are obvious parallels between Maier and the life and work of another American photographer; Mike Disfarmer (indeed the two even share a surname, Disfarmer was born Meyers, apparently a variation of Maier). Disfarmer was similarly an unrecognised talent, a recluse, and an eccentric who claimed he wasn’t born into his family but rather was dropped into their midsts by a passing tornado. Like Maier, Disfarmer’s work was only recognised following his death when it was similarly unearthed, collected and repackaged for the fine art market. It seems rather apt that Disfarmer and Maier are both now represented by the same New York gallery.

Maier’s discovery and rise to fame seems more remarkable than Disfarmer’s, because to my eye at least her photographs aren’t quite as special as his, formally or in terms of what they show. They are fine photographs, but  they are not so different to work by other photographers of the era. For example Lee Friedlander, who like Maier had a penchant for self-portraits, or perhaps Helen Levitt, who roamed the streets of New York with an eye in many ways as delicately probing as Maier’s. Indeed to hear some of Maier’s eulogists speak one would imagine there was no else with a camera in mid-twentieth century Chicago. Her eager reception by critics and audiences alike seems to me less about her photography and rather more about her remarkable life story. It is undeniably compelling and at the same time easily simplified, perfect in short for spreading through the internet and particularly the social networks which were reaching real maturity just at the time that she was discovered. Without the internet it is hard to conceive of Maier reaching nearly so far, so fast.

More than simply facilitating her recognition though, the internet is also partly responsible for creating an environment where the details of Maier’s story would seem particularly strange and compelling to us. The internet is foremost amongst a battery of technologies which have eroded our idea of anonymity to the point of near meaninglessness. To be clear I am no luddite, and the blame for this loss of privacy cannot fall on technology alone. Rather this is something which has occurred more often than not with our willing participation. The impact of high profile government surveillance scandals and leaks of personal information by incompetent corporations are far less considerable than what we have given away ourselves, in the pursuit of our own myopic narcissism. Very few of us feel anonymous, and yet here is a woman who was, and who to a large extent remains, exactly that.

At the same time as appearing in some senses alien to us, Maier is maybe also a strangely familiar figure to us. As well as stripping away our anonymity, the internet has left many of us with the feeling that what we might have gained in inconsequential and fleeting digital connections, we have lost in meaningful face-to-face relationships. Narcissism is not only about excessive self-admiration, in a strange way it also speaks of an inability to admire and become attached to others. An often over overlooked detail of the myth from which this condition takes its name is that Narcissus was only struck down with the affliction of self-obsession after he rejected the advances of Echo (a mythological character in her own right well suited to the internet age, she was punished for her constantly babbling by being struck dumb, left able to only repeat the words of others).

Narcissism is reflected to some extent in the practice of photography itself, both professional or amateur. Whether that is the teenager posting a self portrait to Facebook, the artist exhibiting their ‘navel gazing’ photographs in a gallery or the self-appointed journalist pushing their own world view as objective truth. Non-scientific photography is almost always shot through with a streak of the makers own self-regard, sometimes so small as to be barely imperceptible, sometimes so vast as to consume the photograph entirely. This and the heightened status of photographs as objects which must be displayed makes it increasingly difficult for us to comprehend of making photographs solely for ourselves, or even for no one at all. What is a photograph if it is never seen? Gary Winogrand famously declared that he photographed to see what something looked like as a photograph, but his remarkably regimented approach to shooting and the huge number of undeveloped and developed but unexamined films he left behind at his death would both seem to imply that the process was at least as important as the result.

It is of course notoriously difficult to speculate about a person’s intentions from their actions alone, particularly when the record of a life is as fragmented and incomplete as it is in Maier’s case. Even so, knowing what we do, and looking at the way Maier seems to use the camera as an excuse to approach people on the street, it’s not difficult to imagine that photography was at least partly important because it offered a way to establish momentary connections with other people, at the same time keeping them at a safe distance. Perhaps for Maier the physical photographs were not as important as we like to think, or perhaps they lost importance over time. We will never know, we are only left with the tantalising knowledge that she never seems to have shown them to more than a handful of people, and even then slyly, grudgingly.

Where am I leading with this? To the unanswerable – and yet in Maier’s case seldom even asked question – of what matters more in art, the maker’s own intention for their work, or what people subsequently want to do with it? Should artists be beholden to their audiences in life and death, or should we recognise the legitimacy of an artist making work solely for themselves, and honour that. As much as publication and display might be dressed up as the salvation of her legacy, in truth it could be just as much about her collector’s own narcissism. The strap-line to Maloof’s documentary about Maier describes him as ‘trying to give her the fame that escaped her during her life’. One has to ask the obvious; did fame escape Maier, or did Maier escape fame?