Finding Vivian Maier
“Ultimately photography is about who you are. It’s the truth in relation to yourself. And seeking truth becomes a habit.” – Leonard Freed
Several months ago I came across a name on the internet, as one is apt to do. On Facebook or Twitter or one of the photo blogs that I check in with from time to time I found Vivian Maier. Which is to say a lot given that Vivian died in 2009 and lived a life of obscurity as a nanny to Chicago area families for nearly 40 years. She was not well known to the families she cared for and she remained unknown as a photographer till a couple years after her death. What is remarkable, and the reason why she has exploded in the world of photography, is in her lifetime she shot more than 100,000 frames of film at the time of her death her negatives filled box after box with boxes still of 700 rolls of undeveloped film.
A few days ago I had the chance to see the documentary Finding Vivian Maier in a small, sold out, theatre in Vancouver. It is a story of her life, as well as it is known, and it is the story of her discovery as a photographer. An author, John Maloof, in seeking old photographs for a book project, purchased a box of her negatives at auction in 2007. It took a few days to really get into the work, but once he did, he was able to recognize he had found something remarkable and started sharing his find with the world. In 2009 he launched a blog, Vivian Maier – Her Discovered Work and the world started to take notice, and Vivian took hold of Maloof’s professional life.
Maloof’s film presents Vivian as he discovered her through the people who remember her, the children she cared for, the families she worked for and what developed was a slightly disturbing portrait of a women driven by her obsessions whose behavior became increasingly erratic as she aged. Vivian was intensely private, and though she often photographed the children in her care it is uncertain whether these photos were ever shared. She walked a lot, and photographed what she saw with an alarming clarity; the best of her work perhaps comparable to the street photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson and akin, more locally, to the photography of Fred Herzog.
I’m not writing to summarize this film, rather as an invitation to seek it out. Vivian’s photography is revelatory and although she spent so much of her life creating portraits of others, her own was often incomplete even to those who knew her best. We traverse life meeting those with shared interests and colleagues with similar ambitions but I wonder how complete these pictures are. In an era where the capture of an image comes with increasing ease it is too simple to reduce photography to the press of a button or the activation of an app. There is certainly more to a photograph than what it portrays and there should be no doubt that there is more to a photographer than the act of making a photo. In the end there maybe as many stories going on behind the lens as there are unfolding before it.