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.