Finding Vivian Maier, her story, and her posthumous public profile.
For those familiar with this blog, my affection for the late street photographer Vivian Maier goes deep. She was a woman who had every reason in the world to shout from the rooftops that she’d arrived, but she opted to pursue perfection and technical excellence over fame and fortune. I think one of the reasons her story resonates with people today is that Maier represents a level of dedication and personal character we don’t often see in today’s run-of-the-mill fame whores.
Since I first discovered early stories of Maier in April of 2011, I’ve watched and commented on the growing awareness of her legend. I’ve even goofed on the emergence of the Vivian Maier “crowd.” (I proudly include myself.)
Now, I’m pleased to report that tonight I’ll be rubbing elbows with a subset of Maier fans once again, at a screening and filmmaker Q&A of Finding Vivian Maier. If anything ridiculous jumps off I’ll update this entry, but it’s doubtful that’ll happen. Documentary types are way more tolerable and less make-believe than dopey gallery crowds anyhow.
The subtitle of my first Vivian Maier blog entry was, “Humbled by a feminist pot of gold at the end of a corner rainbow.” That still describes what the street photographer means to me.
The late Maier was a loner with a tremendous gift who existed among and celebrated the salt of the earth of her day. She wandered primarily around Chicago and New York, taking pictures of urban nobodies, then promptly hid her undeveloped film. What’s revealed in the images themselves, now finally seeing the light of day, is that Maier practically had to climb into people’s personal spaces in order to get the shot her keen photographic eye had zeroed in on from 10-20-30-50 feet away. Because practically no one alive today really knew the woman (even those who did, it turns out, didn’t), it’s been speculated that she was able to get close to curbside strangers because she had an aura of confidence but was entirely herself. In other words, when Maier approached, she did so with the air of a fellow nobody.
Until 2009, she was even less than that.
Her discovered collections of photos are absolutely gripping – a looking glass like no other. This is exquisite, technically proficient photography with compositional and emotional storytelling that will first take you close as you’ll ever get to time travel, and second will take your breath away. In the end, you’ll get to know Vivian Maier herself, because so much of her can be found in the faces of the people she captured, strangers in whom she evidently put more faith than anyone, because it’s these faces she entrusted to speak for her. Maier’s belief in both the inherent and unintentional goodness of nobodies is a testament to her character. That’s what I choose to see in her pictures, anyway, and it’s what’s in my heart as I shamelessly romanticize Maier’s role and output.
Although it’s been revealed that Maier did, at one point in her mind-bendingly disciplined and private existence, write a letter to propose that some of her work be published, details have been held back in anticipation of the documentary’s many reveals. Be that as it may, the brief dalliance with exposing her work seems half-hearted compared to the now legendary secrecy that ultimately won out.
No other commercial effort was ever pursued by Vivian Maier. She stayed out of the result, remaining in the process, her craft, and in the work.
And in the four years since a fateful box of photographic negatives became a $400 exploratory purchase for a then twenty-something bargain hunter John Maloof, Maier’s story hasn’t changed. She took over 100,000 photos and 8mm films and kept ’em from the world. But now her story belongs to everyone.
UPDATE: Sunday, March 30, 2014
Well it turns out the letter Maier wrote wasn’t to a publisher at all, and indeed was more of a personal dalliance. But beyond that I cannot go: you’ll have to see the documentary for yourself. When you do, though, you’ll be treated to a story that will stay with you for a long time. It’ll tell you everything you need to know (or more) and delivers on the fuller picture it promises. It will surprise and inspire you too (or you have dead eyes and no soul).
It’s a little clunky at times, but so what? It’s full of life and brimming with a passion for Maier’s journey. The post screening Q&A was hosted by comedian Jeff Garlin, the film’s wildly unlikely executive producer. Yet after those credits rolled, his energy was a sucker punch of much needed humor.
Not that Finding Vivian Maier is a bummer, per se, but it will make you question how seriously you take the opportunities you’ve been given in life. It did me, at least, so Garlin’s chaperoning and snarky hurrying-along of audience questions was really terrific.
And last –I’m sure you’ll agree when you see the film– the world is a better place because of the choices John Maloof made to “get Maier into the history books.” She’s a noteworthy example of someone who “stayed out of the results” and stayed focused on her work at hand.