Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany
Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Vivian Maier's Loaded Camera

Vivian Maier, self-portrait

Finding Vivian Maier (2013),  directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel.

Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny's Photos? [American title: The Vivian Maier Mystery] (2013), directed by Jill Nicholls.

                            My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
                            In Corners - till a Day
                            The Owner passed - identified -
                            And carried Me away -
                             --Emily Dickinson
Was this obscure and difficult woman actually, as those who had discovered her boxes of largely undeveloped negatives contend, one of the great photographers of the 20th century? As the photographs from that great cache began to appear on the internet, posted by the young realtor who acquired them at auction, an intense interest immediately took hold, and grew.  People couldn’t get enough of this "secret" photographer. Even as exhibits, reviews and eventually two full-length documentaries on Vivian Maier took shape, she remained in important ways largely inscrutable.

From the moment her photographs first came to light, there were questions about her artistic importance. Was Maier an artist, or a mere hobbyist? While she was beyond such concerns, having died in 2009, the several holders of her photographic legacy (boxes of negatives, prints, and short films), particularly an ambitious young realtor named John Maloof , pushed for her entry in the pantheon.

In an early news profile on a local Chicago news channel (Maier spent much of her working life as photographer and nanny in the city),  Maier’s work is quickly brought into question by what the newscaster calls “art historians and serious collectors.” Stephen Daiter, local gallery owner, opines for the camera, “I call her an excellent student, not a excellent master." (WTTV Chicago, at 7:38 on YouTube video).

Daiter claims her work is too derivative of other photographers to be considered truly top-notch, while John Maloof encountered institutional resistance to her work because, except for one brief period, she didn’t have the resources to develop and print her own work. Question remain about how, and whether, she would have liked her work to be displayed.

A few years later, the Vivian Maier phenomenon had grown to an extent that it demanded a certain level of official respect. Several award-winning documentaries had been released, one by that bastion of official culture, the BBC. Richard B. Woodward, writing for the Washington Post, attempts to convince [himself?] that hers is still a story worth telling, “The film [Finding Vivian Maier]. . .offers testimonials from contemporary masters Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark.” Nonetheless, he makes it clear he considers her a pathetic “unhappy” person, mostly because she didn’t receive public acclaim from her work, and died alone and in poverty.

The ubiquitous discourse of “mastery”  is especially unfortunate given that Maier was born into the servant class, part of a line of illegitimate and unmarried women who moved between maid and factory positions in New York City and their native village in France.

The Vivian Maier mystery includes how the people for whom she worked are able to claim they had no idea she was a photographer at the same time they testify she was always taking photographs. This ambiguous status, which allowed her to be seen and not seen, accounts, in the end, for the remarkable nature of her work. On a less positive note, perhaps, it probably precluded her being appreciated while alive. Her place in the American social strata, something she documented over epochs with her keen photographic eye, was not that of “master."

Vivian Maier’s work is nonetheless reminiscent of several acknowledged twentieth century masters, most strongly, perhaps, the photographer Robert Frank.
From Robert Frank's classic photography book, The Americans

Born only two years apart, Frank,  was almost an exact contemporary of Maier. A Swiss Jew, he was also geographically akin to Maier, who spent much of her childhood in a small village in the French alps. Like Maier, many of Frank’s 1955 photos express alienation from the American scene of the fifties; yet, paradoxically, both seem to require the energizing friction they encountered here to sharpen their vision. Both tend to focus on those on the margins, on the cracks in the American dream.
One of  Vivian Maier's sheets of negatives, New York, early fifties

The differences are just as telling. Frank was already making a good living as a commercial and fashion photographer, when he embarked on his Guggenheim funded American road trip. Jack Kerouac’s introduction continues to pave the way for his most famous work, The Americans. If Frank was prolific, drawing from over 20,000 negatives for his on the roadside book, Maier is even more so. Apparently shooting while the children she tended were at school, and on her weekends off, she amassed over 150,000 negatives, all on a nanny’s salary. Little wonder that many were never developed; she didn’t have the money, nor, for the most part, the space (part of the reason she is considered a lesser talent by most art museums according to her main champion, John Maloof). This is an astonishing life’s work, when we realize she never showed that work publicly, or even to her close associates, the mystery deepens.

This secretiveness is especially puzzling given the quality of the work and the professionalism on display. When Maloof first pored through the negatives he had purchased at auction, he assumed Maier had worked as a photojournalist. Scattered among her work are photos at official functions, political events, movie premieres, not to mention the Chicago riots (one of her charges describes crying and asking if they were going to die before being led home to the suburbs from the riot scene). So clearly she placed herself, at times, in that press milieu; she appears to have taken her place confidently among the press corps, pushed her way to get a good shot. This combination of boldness and some essential reticence or aloneness shows up in her work, as does her utterly unique positioning as both artist and nanny.

nanny slide.jpg

It’s hard not to view "foreign domestic worker” as essential to her perspective. From all reports, she took photos incessantly, to the point where “Vivian and her camera” started to become almost invisible. And unlike a photographer with a more obtrusive presence, like, inevitably, a tall Swiss foreigner in the South, just passing through, Maier is able to use her “invisibility” to get up close and personal with her subjects.

There’s a whole passel of these “it’s just the nanny” photos that get us deep inside various spaces of fifties suburbia, the beach, the yard, the shady streets of a cloistered childhood.  Like Diane Arbus’ early work taken, more or less, under cover as an adjunct in her husband’s portraiture studio, she uses these scenarios for her own advantage at times, revealing a darkness and oddity, one feels sure the person paying for their presence would not have sanctioned.
arbus party.jpg
On of the families Vivian Maier nannied for
Many of the city photos bristle with a sexual energy, largely unremarked by her commentators. Is this some residual concern about the proper role of the nanny?

At other times, Maier clearly moves assertively into people’s personal space, seeming to get off on the confrontational aspect of the photographic act.


Sometimes Maier appears to be cruising for a fight; at others, she’s just cruising. Contemporary commentary on Maier has tended to focus on how unobtrustive and nonthreatening she must have been to get the shots she did; others focus on how the Rolleiflex camera, held at waist level, removed the threat of the camera from the subject’s eyeline. While this analysis makes sense in some of her photos, it wildly misses the mark in some of her other modes, as in the ones I’ve outlined above. 

She has many modes and moods, yet contemporary viewers seem to want to pigeon-hole her as lady-like and retiring. Her photos, and many of the people who knew her, tell a different story.

How could a photographer so engaged with the world fail to share her work with almost anyone? That’s the $100,000 question, but the two recent documentaries on Maier yield only partial answers.

The two films, one produced by the BBC and one by John Maloof, the owner of the biggest archive of Maier photos, are quite different in their approaches. The odd thing about Finding Vivian Maier, the documentary “co-directed” by John Maloof, the owner of the bulk of Maier’s estate, is the extent to which it is about Maloof himself. In this brief film (Finding Vivian Maier, like the BBC film Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny's Pictures, clocks in at slightly over an hour) we learn about Maloof’s childhood spent scouting out flea-markets with his father; his eagle eye at spotting treasure;the saga of how he came to acquire Maier’s boxes of photos, his tireless work promoting her work, first via the internet and then into the wider (and more profitable) sphere of fine art.
John Maloof, owner of the bulk of Vivian Maier's photographs

Maloof undoubtedly deserves credit for bringing Maier’s work to light; yet does he deserve the amount of credit he has given himself? He’s leveraged his ownership not just into a major business, but to transform himself into an author, editor and documentary film director (he shares credit with Charles Siskel, Gene’s nephew on the documentary ; other endeavors include a book of photographs co-authored with Geoff Dyer and another with Elizabeth Avedon.)

For the most part, critics have given Maloof a pass concerning the extent to which he’s inserted himself into Maier’s story. (One exception: Manohla Dargis's review of Finding Vivian Maier, in which she detects shades of the infomercial, “a feature length advertisement for Mr. Maloof’s commercial venture as principal owner of her work; his name is on the stamp that authenticates her photos.”)

Maloof’s take on Maier’s life is surprisingly sunny; the overall thrust is that she worked out the perfect situation for doing her work unimpeded, and when that work was in danger of being lost, hark! along came Maloof to insure a happy conclusion. In spite of these troubling errors in taste, Maloof’s story, tied as it is to Maier’s own, has its own pull, and his exclusive access to her voluminous films and audio tapes, in addition to the more famous photographs, adds a fascinating dimension.

Luckily, Maloof has not produced the only Maier documentary; nor is he the sole owner of her work. One of the most interesting threads of what I can’t help but think of as “the alternative” BBC documentary, although it was in fact released earlier, concerns the various skirmishes of what has become an extremely valuable property.   There are two other owner’s of her vast number of negatives: Ron Slattery, a sort of goofball enthusiast of found photography who, while he seems to appreciate Maier’s work, doesn't necessarily value it more than the reams of other amateur snapshots he obsessively acquires. He actually posted Maier photos online before Maloof did, but, unsurprising after you see him in the BBC documentary, didn't summon the same effect as the entrepreneurial, marketing savvy John Maloof. In the BBC film, he discusses his plan to give away his Maier photos to strangers on the street. Jeffrey Goldstein, the third stakeholder and the last to acquire her work in bulk, is closer to the Maloofian mold. A building contractor, he saw a business opportunity as the Maier phenomenon began to take off. He took out a large cash loan he couldn’t really afford and, as he recounts in one of the more gripping parts of the BBC film, he met the previous owner in an empty warehouse. Well, empty except for the large bodyguards and guns on hand to insure a smooth exchange of goods.

What Goldsein's story does so neatly highlights (and why, I suspect, it’s left out of the Maloof documentary) is what a valuable property Maier’s work has become. (Goldstein has since quit his other businesses to focus on his highly profitable Maier prints.) In spite of risk and danger in how he acquired his Maier-share, Goldstein says he’s happy he missed the earlier auctions straight from Vivian Maier’s storage contained she was unable to keep up payments on because she was in the hospital. A questionable provenance indeed.

Naturally, given the self-congratulatory tenor of the rest of Maloof’s film, and its near mystical sense of his vocation, there’s no mention of these other stakeholders. The emphasis is on art and advocacy, not money and product placement. Most critics did not view the films side-by-side, since the BBC film was take offline the week Finding Vivian Maier appeared in U.S. theaters. I suspect Maloof's heavy-handed invoking of copyright privileges came into play. In any case, for those who did view it, Who Took Nanny's Photos brings up sticky questions about art and property, the intersections and exclusions between the two.

There are strong suggestions that, at least early on, Maier intended to pursue a professional career as a photographer. When she was a young child, her mother appears to have worked as a maid for a woman from her village named Jeanne Bertrand, who had made a comfortable life as a studio photographer, creating the strong possibility Maier saw photography as a ticket out of manual labor. And there is her early evidence work in the journalistic vein, shooting movie stars and of politicians as they came through town. We see Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn.

Audrey Hepburn at the Chicago premiere of My Fair Lady

Spiro Agnew. She shot Salvador Dali outside the Museum of Modern art, where he, along with Maier, attended an influential photography exhibit.


Pamela Bannos, an academic and photographer, has traced this exhibit to 1952, a year in which Maier’s commitment to photography appears to have deepened. This was the year she shifted from a box camera to the more professional, and much more expensive Rolleiflex. It became her instrument of choice, and she acquired several over the years, a not inconsiderable investment on a nanny’s salary. Indeed, one of her employers remarks in Finding Vivian Maier, in a still somewhat scandalized tone, that the nanny had the camera he wanted.

The details that emerge in both films of her employers and her years as a nanny do much to explain why she never ended up becoming a professional photographer. What these two documentaries reveal is that she seems to have sought out households with good professional contacts. In the fifties and sixties, when she seems to have been in demand as an educated French nanny, she worked for the photography editor of a local paper. She also worked for Phil Donahue for a year in the seventies. These brushes with fame and journalism are too frequent, I think, to be chalked up to coincidence: Maier was putting out professional feelers. But she was a difficult person, and one stuck in a necessarily subordinate role in the household. Her employers had little motivation to arrange outside connections. Even now, confronted with ample evidence, they seem unable to imagine her in a role besides that of their eccentric nanny.

Almost to a one, her former employers seem incredulous at the attention to this forgotten menial. They trot out old anecdotes about her oddity, about how brusque and confrontational she was. We hear how she took too many candies at the department store counter. One of the children she watched tells how humiliating it could be to be with Maier, how sometimes she wanted to slap her and make her put her camera away. Her epic hoarding, another aspect of her too-muchness, is what everyone remembers the most.

Maier, while she carved out a comfortable enough existence in mid-life, was born into a marginal existence, and ended up eating out of dumpsters, in a small apartment crammed with stuff. Maloof’s film, once again, glosses over the extent of the dysfunction. Maier, for years, crammed every available space with newspapers, books and other stuff. The newspapers she saved mostly had to do with assaults and murders of women; and she herself became violent and paranoid if she felt people were tampering with her "valuable" stuff. She lost one job when she became distraught an employers had given a neighbor some newspapers, stored in some forgotten corner of the house, to a neighbor to use in his painting project. “Vivian had become too crazy,” says the former employer. By the end, she'd even covered her bed with stuff, a classic line of no return.

Her work begins to change in the last few decades as well. Photos of trash cans begin to dominate her work, focusing on the excruciating moment of discarding, a moment she eschewed at all cost. (One of the few memories Phil Donahue recounts is that she was always photographing the trash cans, to the ridicule of his four sons.) Newspapers headlines about Nixon, about riots, and other political unrest begin to preoccupy her. In short, there is a decline into semi-madness, with little or no assistance.

The fact that Maier has become the hero of our snap-happy, Instagram-informed digital age raises interesting questions about what on earth we’re doing. Her life and work has much to teach us, not just in its intimate glimpses into forgotten aspects of the last century, but about our lives now, what we value and what we discard.


  1. Great read, stimulated a long response on my own blog!

  2. Vivian Maier emerges as elusive and fascinating as her photographs. It beguiles the imagination to consider what she would have made of digital photography. So many images on a small chip could be so alluring to a hoarder. She might serve as an symbol for our time ; the great concerns for privacy as we snap away on cell phones , photo sharing on computers, debating whether images can be erased or become part of a timeless file beyond our control...She appeared fond of "selfies" whether looking directly at the camera or mysteriously in shadow. It maybe that the camera doesn't lie but it can evasively Photo Shop even the photographer.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.