The beautiful desecration of Vivian Maier

Above: Self-Portrait, 1953. © 2014 Vivian Maier, Maloof Collection, Ltd.

Vivian Maier. Hers is the name of the moment in the world of art. The reclusive photographer, who died in 2009, has shot to public fame and critical acclaim with her strikingly intimate, curiously detached street photography. But who was this woman? How did an unknown amateur become so artistically accomplished? These are the questions that have whetted the appetite for Maier’s work, and for herself as a kind of posthumous celebrity. The story of an eccentric, intensely secretive nanny who roamed the streets of Chicago, photographing outcasts and loners, whose collection was discovered purely by chance after her death – it is the stuff of the silver screen. Indeed, her enigmatic story has already spawned two excellent documentaries. “Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?”, produced by the BBC was originally released in 2013, and the other, “Finding Vivian Maier” was released earlier this year by Charles Siskel and John Maloof. With the UK release of the award-winning latter, the British art-press and public alike have latched wholeheartedly onto the puzzle of this intriguing recluse.

1955, New York, NY
1955, New York, NY. © 2014 Vivian Maier, Maloof Collection, Ltd.

Maier took tens of thousands of photographs of Chicago and its multitudinous denizens. She died destitute in hospital, having spent almost all of her small income on film, developing and storage. Having no family or associates, the contents of her lockers were auctioned off. The succession of men who bought her battered suitcases of photographs began what was to become the establishment of a new name amongst the greats of photography. After the contents of her lockers were snapped up by an auctioneer, many of Maier’s photographs became flea-market fodder, in turn sold on to photography enthusiasts and collectors. As her collection was fragmented and dispersed, academics began to recognise the importance of her work, and her star began to rise. The rest is history, the Maier phenomenon began to sweep the globe and ‘vintage’ prints now sell for upwards of $8,000.

This sounds like a modern rehash of a familiar story: the starving artist, impecunious and ignored in life, posthumously finding fame and fortune – Vivian following, in shit-kicker boots, the footsteps of Van Gogh and his ilk. Yet, there is a crucial difference, with troubling implications for our relationship with Maier’s work. The difference is that she presumed no audience, in the most absolute way. During her lifetime, most of her photographs were never shown to another living soul, and most were never even developed. Maier made absolutely no attempt to gain recognition, in fact she seemed to consciously eschew it. The mother of one of the prominent Jewish families that she worked for was the editor of a photography magazine; Maier never showed her a single photograph. She bumped into Salvador Dali outside a photography exhibition; she hid behind a column and took his picture.

I would like to preface all of what I have now to say with the disclaimer that it is unequivocally a good thing that Maier’s work was discovered. Her work is stimulating, absorbing and technically accomplished. Many of the photographs are exquisitely beautiful. The world of street photography, and art in general, is richer for Maier’s contribution. But just how much of the phenomenon we are revelling in is actually Vivian’s contribution? In the aptly named “Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?”, Steven Kasher, the owner of a gallery selling Maier’s prints, explained that “we believe that she never fully realised her work, so we are helping her to realise it, printing it in a certain way, editing it in a certain way, picking the pictures that have meaning to us”. The sentiment here is proactive and productive, yet also patronising and rather despotic. The emphasis is on ‘we’, ‘us’. The meaning is for ‘us’, the ‘certain way’ of editing and printing is ‘ours’, that is to say, implicitly not Vivian Maier’s. This is something that photographer Joel Meyerowitz also articulates, expressing concern “because we’re only seeing pictures that the people who bought the suitcases decided to edit…and what kind of editors are they? What would she have edited out of this work, and what would she have printed? How do any of us know who the real Vivian Maier is?”.

Self-Portrait, 1954. © 2014 Vivian Maier, Maloof Collection, Ltd.
Self-Portrait, 1954. © 2014 Vivian Maier, Maloof Collection, Ltd.

Of the numerous uncomfortable lines that Maier’s work treads, between amateur and professional, technique and intuition, the one between public and private is the most fascinating. Maier forces us to ask the most fundamental of questions about art – if it has no audience, does it exist? Jeffrey Goldstein, an owner of a large chunk of Vivian’s collection believes that “artwork isn’t artwork until it’s shown”. He may have a point, but at the same time one is put in mind of John Stuart Mill when he contended that the difference between eloquence and poetry is that the former is “heard” whereas the latter is “overheard”. Indeed, the quality most often praised in Maier’s work is its poeticism, and she herself is frequently declared ‘a poet of the streets’. Though this may just be the normal gushing overuse of the word, there could very well be something in the crowning of Maier as a poet.  Most of her photographs were seen only once, through the viewfinder of her Rolleiflex camera, by her alone. These photographs challenge what it means to be a street photographer, and force us to reconsider our presuppositions about the nature of art. We now naturally think of her photographs as works of art, but at the time of production, for the woman we now designate ‘the artist’ were they really ‘art’?

This is the essential paradox that an figure like Vivian Maier (I deliberately do not say ‘artist’, for the term is retrospective) presents us with. In the revelation and publicising of her work, its ‘becoming art’, it is no longer the essential thing that it was created as. The establishment of what was essentially Maier’s diary as artwork could be seen a destructive process, as well as conventionally constructive. Perhaps this offers an explanation for why people are so fascinated with her life story, and so keen to mythologise and sensationalise her, it is an attempt to fill in the hole that has been rent in her work by its revelation. There is an essential something missing from Vivian’s photographs as perfect artefacts, and that is their privacy, their inscrutability, their function as a personal, self-reflexive, hermetically sealed diary. We, as spectators (along with collectors, curators, and the press) have interrupted the dialogue between Vivian and Vivian.

However, whilst we have lost the true nature photographs, we have gained a collection that retrospectively exposes a poignant truth about the nebulous boundary between art and the art market. The claiming and transfiguration of Maier’s photo-diary is also one of the very things that renders the work fascinating. The glimpse into a private mind, the dislocation of the self, the construction of a personal world – is this not what great, visionary art strives for? Vivian Maier exposes a poignant truth about art and its commodification: the tragedy of the necessary subsumption of private lives into a conglobulate public consciousness. Vivian Maier’s work is fated to forever be uncomfortable in its own skin, and it is on this level that it is most fascinating.

But, to return to my original argument: whatever we may be seeing in Vivian Maier’s work, there is a blank spot in our vision. We can never fully appreciate the true significance of these photographs because of the sphere that they now exist in. They have been transposed out of their intended function, and so have been transfigured by circumstance – the death of their creator, the movement of auction hammers and the dusty fingers of collectors. The world stole Vivian Maier’s photographs, and exquisite as they are, this is something that should not be ignored.