Vivian Maier:  Secret Photographer

If you're one of the cognoscenti among photographers, you have a list of names you can drop.  These big names include Yousuf Karsh, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon and, recently, Vivian Dorothy Maier.

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Vivian Maier became part of my life on January 3, 2011 through a reposting of a YouTube clip from Chicago Tonight (http://youtu.be/HWEDOnBfDUI).  This clip does an excellent job of introducing the idea of Vivian Maier as an artist with a potentially powerful body of work.  Information about her is now abundant and includes a web site, vivianmaier.com.

Recently I took part in a docent-lead tour of some of her work at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts.  From that I learned a few additional interesting things about her.

Vivian Maier died in 2009 at 83.  The first peek into her life as an artist came when a real estate agent, John Maloof, bought a box of negatives which were part of a larger collection of articles from a storage locker.  He was looking for images of Chicago to support a book he was writing.

Vivian Maier lived a solitary life, working as a nanny.  She was intensely private; one could almost say rudely private.  It seems that she wouldn't give the film processing people her real name; and she once told someone that she made her living as a spy.

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According to a friend of mine, who has some experience in these matters, it is possible that, like Mozart and Einstein, she was a person with Asperger's Syndrome.  She was extremely focussed (please excuse the pun) on her photography.  Her collection of books show that not only did she take pictures, she was interested in photography as an art form.

According to my friend, Asperger's adults may get along well with children.  This could explain why one of her charges characterized her as Mary Poppins, while an adult neighbour thought she was rude. 

As distant as she may have been from others, she must have had a compelling way with people.  It was the children to whom she was a nanny who provided for her when she was very old.  And, as we can see in the photos, people seemed comfortable being photographed by her.  And there is the story that she was able to talk the milkman into driving the children to school in his milk truck.

Until John Maloof's discovery, it is probable that no one had seen her work. 

Even Vivian Maier may not have seen most of it

She left behind about 150,000 negatives and 700 rolls of undeveloped colour film.  And, it seems, not much in the way of prints.  It will be years before all of her work is scanned and available for review.

We the public, don't know a lot about her technical skill.  Perhaps one day we will see her contact sheets.  According to the docent in my tour, Vivian tended to take one shot, not several, and that was it.  If that's the case, we have a huge collection of unique images.

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It was also said that she tended to put herself in her pictures.  This is observable in many shots.  She is there in a reflection, or as a shadow.  But this is by no means a clear in every picture.

Most of the pictures that were hung in the Museum of Photographic Art were cropped in the square format of the Rolleiflex image.  We will never know if she would have cropped in printing.  Perhaps, in her mind, the picture was completed once the shutter had been released.

In any case, the range of her work is fascinating.  Use the power of the internet and take time to browse.  It will be worth it.

Posted June 25, 2013 at 3:20 pm.