Vivian Maier’s Compelling Fixations
By Tom Wachunas
“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” -Diane Arbus
“When you find yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and the people you photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know you are on the right track.” – Weegee
EXHIBIT: Vivian Maier: Photography’s Secret Master, THROUGH DECEMBER, 2014, at the Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography, 520 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton Arts District / gallery hours Wed.-Sat. Noon to 5 p.m. / www.josephsaxton.com/
For starters, very special thanks are in order. First to John Maloof, who is primarily responsible for bringing to world attention the life and work – indeed the phenomenon – of photographer Vivian Maier. After his 2007 acquisition in Chicago of boxes containing some 100,000 negatives, he proceeded to embark upon an amazing labor of archiving the images, and ultimately became the dedicated custodian and chief curator of Maier’s oeuvre. In the process he was inspired to become a photographer himself, as well as co-direct, with Charlie Siskel, the acclaimed 2013 documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier.
Additional deep thanks to Tim Belden, owner of the Saxton Gallery of Photography in downtown Canton. His astute recognizing of the importance of Maier’s astonishing photographic legacy prompted him to mount a stunning, thoughtfully selected exhibit of 30 of her black and white photographs.
Lastly, I thank you, my readers, in advance, for your time in reading about Maier’s life and work by clicking on the links provided above. I think that by doing so you will surely better appreciate the circumstances and trajectory of her story.
The official Vivian Maier web site bio tells us, among many other things, that by all accounts from the people who knew her, Maier was, “… eccentric, strong, heavily opinionated, highly intellectual, and intensely private. She wore a floppy hat, a long dress, wool coat, and men’s shoes and walked with a powerful stride… An unabashed and unapologetic original.” But what all the intriguing details about her life and work ultimately don’t tell us is exactly why a well-travelled nanny who never left her home without her camera – a woman who was a clearly gifted, wildly prolific (and apparently obsessive) photographer - was so secretive about her pictures of the urban street milieu around her. She never showed her pictures to anyone.
Many of Maier’s images seem born of an insatiable curiosity and empathy. They exude an ineffable aura of living in the now, suggesting a desire to vicariously connect, however briefly, with the citizens she encountered – children, the old, the busy and bored, the scruffy and refined, the poor and marginalized. Call it a passionate, authentic abiding in human evanescence.
There’s no vapid, manipulated artifice here. The views of urban life in Maier’s images aren’t pre-planned, euphoric or idealized constructions steeped in romantic hyperbole. Nor are they dystopian. They are quite simply an honest surrender to reality as she found it.
Many of her crisply composed pictures are moments populated by individuals wholly oblivious to her presence - the photographer as gentle stalker or spy. But there is also a substantial presence of straightforward shots of camera-aware people. Their reactions to being photographed were richly varied. These arresting scenarios, such as the first of the five I’ve posted here at the top, sometimes convey a strange awkwardness if not ambiguity, inviting us to wonder about possible narratives. In the photo just below it, the woman in the center, clutching her purse and looking directly at us, might feel uncomfortable, perplexed or even upset by the camera’s intrusion. Has Maier interrupted the amorous attentions of the man with his arm around her shoulder?
In a New York Times review on January 19, 2012, critic Roberta Smith hailed Vivian Maier as “…a new candidate for the pantheon of great 20th century street photographers” who could be seen as contributing to the history of the genre “…by summing it up with an almost encyclopedic thoroughness, veering close to just about every well-known photographer you can think of, including Weegee, Robert Frank and Richard Avedon, and then sliding off in another direction…” I wholeheartedly agree.
Did Maier simply think it not all that important to present herself as an artist? Is it completely unreasonable to think that her privacy about her photographs was an uncanny exercise in humility? Or was her compulsion fueled by needs we’ll never know? A mystery, and a compelling mystique.
Still, as easy as it sounds now to say, I can’t escape the sense that her work was somehow ultimately missional in nature, making us as viewers the grateful recipients of a remarkable blessing.
PHOTOS, from top, from www.vivianmaier.com : untitled, August, 1954, New York City / untitled, no date, New York City / Armenian woman fighting on East 86th Street, September, 1956, New York City/ untitled, 1959, Grenoble, France / November 4, 1955, San Francisco, CA.