Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mystery of Vivian Maier, Photographer Extraordinaire

Vivian Maier 1926-2009

A mystery is unfolding over at Vivian Maier: Her Discovered Work, a blog maintained by John Maloof in honor of Vivian Maier, an obscure woman who might turn out to have been one of the greatest street photographers of the twentieth century. Here's a brief account by Mr. Maloof of how he discovered Ms. Maier:
I acquired Vivian's negatives while at a furniture and antique auction. From what I know, the auction house acquired her belongings from her storage locker that was sold off due to delinquent payments. I didn't know what 'street photography' was when I purchased them.

It took me days to look through all of her work. It inspired me to pick up photography myself. Little by little, as I progressed as a photographer, I would revisit Vivian's negatives and I would "see" more in her work. I bought her same camera and took to the same streets soon to realize how difficult it was to make images of her caliber. I discovered the eye she had for photography through my own practice. Needless to say, I am attached to her work.

After some researching, I have only little information about Vivian. Central Camera (110 yr old camera shop in Chicago) has encountered Vivian from time to time when she would purchase film while out on the Chicago streets. From what they knew of her, they say she was a very "keep your distance from me" type of person but was also outspoken. She loved foreign films and didn't care much for American films.

Some of her photos have pictures of children and often times it was near a beach. I later found out she was a nanny for a family on the North Side whose children these most likely were. One of her obituaries states that she lived in Oak Park, a close Chicago suburb, but I later found that she lived in the Rogers Park neighborhood.

Out of the more than 100,000 negatives I have in the collection, about 20-30,000 negatives were still in rolls, undeveloped from the 1960's-1970's. I have been successfully developing these rolls. I must say, it's very exciting for me. Most of her negatives that were developed in sleeves have the date and location penciled in French (she had poor penmanship).

I found her name written with pencil on a photo-lab envelope. I decided to 'Google' her about a year after I purchased these only to find her obituary placed the day before my search. She passed only a couple of days before that inquiry on her.

I wanted to meet her in person well before I found her obituary but, the auction house had stated she was ill, so I didn't want to bother her. So many questions would have been answered if I had.
Questions answered? Perhaps. But she sounds like a very private woman, especially in remarks about her presented in this ten-minute documentary: Street Photographer’s Work Discovered A Few Days After Her Death. The documentary title is somewhat perplexing, given Mr. Maloof's words above, until one realizes that it refers to the fact that he learned Ms. Maier's name only a few days after her death. That sobering fact focused my mind on questions about the meaning of a person's life. I wrote to a friend concerning Ms. Maier and her artistic aim, a possibly quixotic quest that led her to take more than 100,000 photographs over the course of her adulthood, which in turn led me to openly wonder about the meaning of her life:
She may turn out to be one of the great photographers of the 20th century, but she never attempted to display any in a gallery. Indeed, she seems to have left most of the photos undeveloped. Her work was uncovered by chance, and even her name was unknown until the young man who had obtained the photos found it in one of the boxes that he had purchased. He conducted an internet search and came up with a single reference, an obituary of only a day or two before.

If Ms. Maier turns out to be great, I wonder what the meaning of her life was. Did she know she was great? If so, why live in obscurity? Why not display one's work? We might recognize and acclaim her greatness, but what good is that for her now?
I realize that these are rather ill-formed questions, but perhaps readers can intuit what I'm trying to get at. One wants greatness to be acclaimed, the great individual to be broadly recognized, a deserved reward to be justifiably showered on the one who achieved greatness . . . lest life be unfair.

Life, of course, is unfair. Greatness is no guarantee of reward, and in Ms. Maier's case, she in fact appears not even to have sought any recognition and acclaim for her work. Indeed, as noted above, she didn't bother to develop the vast majority of her photographs. Was that profound confidence . . . or deep insecurity? Given the description of her as "outspoken" in her views on things, and her confidence in her opinions about films, I venture that she was profoundly confident, so sure of her artistry that she saw no need even to see the developed results. Yet, the mystery remains.

To see for yourself what Ms. Maier saw through the camera lens alone, visit John Maloof's blog -- or also a website, maintained by Jeff Goldstein, offering several more of her photographs (from among the more than 12,000 negatives he obtained) and a recognition that "sequestered, private motivations" focused her artistic vision.

Perhaps we'll learn more about those motivations over the next several months and years as we learn more of her art and life . . .

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At 4:21 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Did you already know the great she-photographer Tina Modotti?

At 4:31 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

No, I'm not very knowledgeable about photography. I've probably seen her work if it's commonly known, but I don't recall the name.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh I dunno Jeff, sometimes it can be a good thing to remain unrecognized. Why just the other day a respectable news "friend" of mine spoke to a reporter who was checking out Arkansas' recent "bird mystery."

After his mea culpa on his blogsite I sent him an email with the subject line beginning "LOL [his name]." His response was, "It is only kinda funny."

It was hilarious to me - suddenly his Google results compared to mine.


At 6:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Good point, JK. I'd not like to be truly recognized for what I am . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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