After two miserably confining Covid years, we are once again visiting museums, galleries and exhibitions and even going to the cinema. Rohan led the return; I initially resisted. She argued that it was time for us, well, for me, to venture out more, and, of course she was right!
The venues she has chosen have been real eye-openers and none more so than a tiny, two-room exhibition at the museum in Quimper, a short drive from our home in Brittany. As is so often the case, the exhibition itself tells only part of the story!
On display were around 100 photos – mainly her street scenes – taken by Vivian Maier, who, after spending most of her life working as a nanny/governess in the USA, died destitute, infirm and unknown in a Chicago care home in 2009, aged 83. Interestingly, she could not have seen the pictures displayed in Quimper – like almost all of her work, they were not printed till after her death.
Maier was an obsessional photographer. Although she took portraits – many of herself – most were of street scenes where she sought to capture gestures or scenes that told a human story. She took pictures non-stop, told next to no one of her hobby and, in keeping, allowed very few people to see the photos she had taken. To consolidate her secrecy, over the years she hid away vast hoards of her work in rented containers.
In her dotage, payments to cover the storage lapsed and two years before her death and without her knowing, the contents of the containers were auctioned off. By chance, most were bought by John Maloof, a 25-year-old estate agent with no interest in photography but who was perceptive, sensitive, audacious and determined, all coupled with a strong entrepreneurial streak. More of this modern-day saviour later.
What I want from a photo is that it immediately draws me in and tells a story. If I walk by, it has failed. Then, when I look, new depths are revealed with messages that grip and later linger. In the exhibition, the ingenious composition, focus and clarity of her photos did all this but they also made powerful comments. Somehow, through the subtlest of imagery, her photographic eye captured and imparted: pathos, loneliness, poverty, love, joy, friendship (see illustration), tenderness, fear, pride and so on. I found it impossible not to stare and admire.
Now back to John Maloof. In 2005, as a member of his local history society, he decided to write with a colleague a history of his Chicago neighbourhood. The publishers insisted that the book should include hundreds of illustrations of which most would be contemporary photos of the area. In 2007, while his search for illustrations was still continuing, he learned of the sale by auction of thousands of old photos that had been stored in a local warehouse. He bought the contents of almost all of the containers, and although he found no pictures he could use, he realised that he was now in possession of a cache of 150,000 unprocessed negatives, more than 3,000 vintage prints, hundreds of rolls of film and home movies; in fact he now owned up 90% of Maier’s material. Soon he took a course in photography and, with the knowledge gained, scanned much of his new collection.
As he sifted the material Maloof discovered Maier’s name but who she really was remained a mystery. Then, in 2009, he saw a newspaper announcement of Maier’s death and from it was able to discover her history and to begin to trace her relatives. His mission was to create an archive of Maier’s work; her personal history would give the project added depth.
And now to a third element to this story. On one of our visits to the exhibition – I went three times – we met a friend, in fact an art dealer. We told him where we were headed and in response he told us not to bother: “The whole thing is a fake”. He agreed that the negatives were created by Maier but added that their development was done posthumously and the quality and contrast of the printed images used in the exhibition were infinitely better than anything available in her day. Finally, he added that Maier did not, nor could not, authenticate pictures displayed as her work. I agreed, but such distancing is not unusual. It is actually common for some artists, like sculptors in bronze and those who design stained glass windows, to be at one remove from the final work.
I was not dissuaded, indeed my friend’s comments made seeing the exhibition that much more interesting. Originally the pictures, as negatives, will have been created by Maier and that is where her genius lies – it was she who so elegantly captured the conditions of others. As for Maloof, he certainly made money from the sale of her work and gained reflected fame but, more importantly he saved Vivian Maier from oblivion, and that will do for me.
The illustration is a photo of two little girls together in the street. For me, the composition and the feeling of close friendship Maier captures in their expressions is compelling.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Sarah, Philippe, Rohan and Vivien.
8 thoughts on “The Secret Genius of Vivian Maier”
Joe, your boring art dealer friend has sour grapes written all over him! I have seen VM’s photos printed elsewhere – a magazine? – and I could not agree with you more: they are invariably everything a photograph should be, and more. The one you use at the top is just irresistible!
Dear Merrily, Thank you very much for your comments. I’d assumed that he had stupid grapes. Love, Joe
Another immensely interesting piece. I especially like the twists and turns in the story; all well handled within the length of the piece.
I do not agree with your Art dealer friend. I suppose what it comes down to with dealers is: at the end of the day, does it make money?
Slightly different, but are you aware of the work of a man called Stuart Humphryes, Twitter name, Babelcolour who colorizes old photographs? I find his work fascinating because he usually juxtaposes the original and the colourized version together, and this, in my view is a crucial part of the powerful effect. The photographs are mostly just everyday ones, too.
Another hugely interesting blog!
Another lovely and uplifting blog Joe… like many women, Ms. Maier found a way despite her sad circumstances to find a way to feed her soul and bring joy to her life, in a way where no one could comment (negatively).
There will always be grumpy ‘I know better’ folk, often it’s only years later the words and impact of actions has an effect.
Dear Carolyn, I find fascinating your idea that someone might live his or her life in such way as to avoid negative comment. To do this is so tragic. Another explanation is that Vivian was very shy and very modest, but even that hardly feels healthy. Love, Joe
Dear Rissole, Thank you very much for your generous comment. I have now looked at Babelcolour images on the web and while I see them as clever and interesting, his work does not stimulate me -sorry. Yours, Joe
That’s fine. I’m not a huge fan, (I’ve only just found out that they are not colourized but ‘cleaned’, so sorry for giving you erroneous info.! They must have been rather dirty before?! )but they’re certainly worth a look.
we recently watched a documentary on Maier. ( beamafilm.com)
This explains that she took up being a Nanny so she could roam the streets. It also has interviews with some of her young charges, and some of her employers.
Mostly good. Also the rather sad last years. Lots of photos of her in action also eg in a reflection in a window.
Her method was looking down into the camera, not through viewer pointing at people
which means many of her subjects did not notice. She did in fact get stuff printed in Switzerland.
They traced the village from the mountain and talked to folk who knew her.