Eye of a century, hidden in nanny's frumpy clothes? Two films
On November 25, 2008, in Chicago, Vivian Maier, an aging, impoverished, frumpily dressed spinster with a strange accent and a forbidding manner, a former nanny of mysterious origins, slipped on the ice and hit her head. She was in her eighties, and the injury had fatal consequences. Shunted between hospitals and nursing homes thereafter, she never recovered, dying five months later. Before this, in 2007, her rental on storage spaces went into arrears. She kept her photos, and many other things in these rental lockers, because she was a pack rat. The company sold off the contents, five lockers jammed with stuff, which were bought by Roger Gunderson, an auctioneer, for $250. He dumped some of the papers. That was a mistake, because after several people randomly bought up boxes of photos and negatives in the collection and put some on the Internet, Vivian Maier was spotted as an artist of great talent -- perhaps one of the great street photographers of the twentieth century.
They were dividing up the spoils before she was even dead, and she never knew about it. (One collector is glad he came along a year later, so he was not one of the predators.) In five years Vivian Maier has become a cottage industry. People have promoted her work and the mystery of her life, and profited by both. Dozens of exhibitions of her photographs have been held all over the world. Most of these consist of big, beautiful prints just made, since in the vast majority of cases she simply did not print her photographs, or have them printed; many rolls of film were not even yet developed. There have now been four books published on Maier, and there have been two feature documentaries about her life and work, which I'll talk about. Basically, Vivian Maier took photographs tirelessly for over forty years, but without printing them, and rarely showing them to anybody. Nor did she talk about them, though of course the children she minded and families she worked for knew she was always taking them and always had a camera around her neck. She didn't promote herself as a photographer. It's only by accident that she has now become famous. But her outsider status and mystery seems to increase her appeal to a wide public, which is already fascinated and adoring. As Jill Nicholls says "Vivian has gone viral." Her fame has spread on the Web like a kitten on YouTube. She has caught the imagination of an Instagram society obsessed with taking constant photos with their phones as Vivian Maier did with her Rolleiflex. But the tool and the eye are very different.
The first documentary was Jill Nicholls' Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny's Pictures. It was produced by the BBC in June 2013, then recut and released in the US in December as The Vivian Maier Mystery. It can be watched in VOD. The owner of the largest chunk of Maier's photograph collection, which was divided up among multiple buyers, is the young real estate agent, flea market seller, and amateur historian John Maloof, who knew little about photography to start with. He refused to appear in Nicholls' film, because he was making his own. It is Finding Vivian Maier (2013), directed by Maloof and Charlie Siskel, a nephew of the late Gene Siskel, of "Siskel and Ebert at the Movies." Maloof's film is energetic and enthusiastic, but also a bit suspect. Maloof is part of the cottage industry. He is behind two of the Maier books. He's deeply involved in the "Vivian Maier Archive," a project to scan and print vast quantities of her photos, which he shares sale of with the Howard Greenberg Gallery, a major photography dealer in New York. Maloof's film is full of excitement and drama -- sometimes excessive drama, in the case of one former Maier charge whose accusations of abuse he has elsewhere admitted seem invented -- but the chronology and facts get a bit muddled in Maloof's version. And the problem with Maloof's film is that he makes it sound as if he is the only one involved in collecting and promoting Vivian Maier. Pamela Bannos, a professor of arts at Northwestern who studies "Vivian Maier's Fractured Archive," has noted elsewhere that Maloof claimed in an interview that no academic has wanted to study the collection, but on the contrary she has repeatedly approached him -- and been ignored.
Nicholls' film is in many ways more neutral: she does not own or sell Maier photographs. And not surprisingly, Nicholls' benefits from this coolness, providing a clearer perspective on the woman and her work. Nicholls outlines the chronology of Maier's life more thoroughly. Perhaps more importantly, she takes a closer, more sensitive, look at the photographs, providing a better sense of how Maier shot and saw and what her greatest concerns were. The photographer Joel Meyerowitz speaks in both films, but his comments in Nicholls' turn out to be more informative about her talent, and why taking photos without ever printing them makes sense; about how her way of shooting shows a true "artistic tendency." If you want to get clear about Maier's life and work, your best bet is Nicholls' film, but Maloof still provides some useful material, such as audio tapes Maier made, lengthier interviews with families she lived with, and other documents of interest, that is not in Nicholls.
More interested in presenting a clear story than dramatizing the hunt, Nicholls particularly makes clear the chronology of Maier's New York childhood. Her basic origins are not a mystery now. Her father was Austro-Hungarian, her mother French. Nicholls explains Maier's movements back and forth to France, where she lived from age six to twelve with her mother (who could not earn a living as a maid in New York); she went back to France again right after WWII in her early twenties, this time taking many photographs. Then came her years in New York as a nanny and budding street photographer and her much longer time in Chicagoland.
But no matter what you learn, it remains hard to get your head around Vivian Maier -- not so much her personal oddity, but how we are to assess her work. Much of it still remains to be seen. And even when it is all developed and scanned and printed or projected or filed, we may never know which images she would have chosen as her best. Meyerowitz points this out to Nicholls. It means we don't know what her style was, or her best sense of what she was doing. She's been compared to Robert Frank, Helen Lewitt, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier Bresson, Berenice Abbot, Weegee, and others. But that's the trouble. These are very different photographers. What is her style? Did she have one? Was she just referencing or copying them, or are they just different aspects of a photographic century that she encompassed in the vastness of her work? Clearly she has a marvelous eye and a long-honed skill at stealing the decisive moment, but maybe she's just that: a record of the second half of the twentieth century, as well as a diary of her own personal moods, which Nicholls' film suggests became increasingly grim with the late Sixties and the Nixon-Watergate era.
It's really too soon to say. Gary Winogrand famously left a barrel of undeveloped 35mm. photographs, but Vivian took an estimated 150,000, mostly with a Rolleiflex, and most of them never printed, many not developed. Nicholls gives us a sense of how she worked: Pat Velasco is a photography shop owner Nicholls interviews who saw Vivian's photos of dicey Chicago neighborhoods she braved on foot, alone. Here Nicholls goes into Vivian's technique. The Rolleiflex roll is only 12 photos, then she had to change. She usually shot a roll a day, and tended to take one shot and move on; "her hit rate was phenomenal." (She spent nearly all her salary on film, equipment and storage.) Another analyst shows how a developed roll of Maier's Rolliflex film takes us through the course of her day in the city.
She took a lot of photos of children, and, like Lee Friedlander, a lot of on-the-run self-portraits (some of them as inventive and witty as his). But mostly she was a street photographer, and she had a particular penchant for close-up portraits of the down-and-out in the seediest pars of those two towns, where she dragged her youthful charges, or went on her time off, on her own. Meyerowitz points out to Nicholls how she developed the ability to work up very close to a street person, do a portrait, and then move on. Maloof points out as well how the Rolleiflex's focusing screen that you look down into allowed her to shoot even in rough areas without seeming intrusive.
Not being in the business of promotion a personal collection, Nicholls can talk to other dealers that own and sell Maier's photographs, and can visit with other individuals who bought major caches of them from the auction. Steven Kasher, who has another New York gallery, candidly notes that newly made Maier prints sell for $2,000, and vintage ones for $8,000; he says the willingness of people to pay such high prices for the work of an unknown is unprecedented (but of course this is an age of instant fame). We spend time with Ron Slattery, one who bought, for $250, not knowing what he was getting, a container with 2,000 vintage Maier prints. Ron says his purchase would be dwarfed by others, a guy named "Randy," (Randy Prow) and John Maloof who put in an "absentee bid" on some negatives. Ron like Maloof posted some slides on his website in 2008. Ron explains that Alan Sekula, a professor in California, said they work was important, and Maloof started collecting as much of the work and possessions as he could. Sekula warned Maloof to stop selling the Maier photo negatives for a few dollars on eBay. Maloof was selling them as the kind of found amateur snapshots that are called "vernacular photography," when they were, in fact, anything but naive and amateur.
Jeff Goldstein is the second largest owner of Vivian's work, a rival of Maloof heard from in Nicholls' film but not Maloof's. He tells some of the noirish aspect of hot photo dealing, when he bought a lot of the auction cache from Randy Prow, in tense circumstances, bringing cash, each man accompanied by a burly bodyguard ("his was bigger than mine"). (Despite Goldstein's and Maloof's printing and selling editions of Maier's work, their ownership of copyright of such newly-sold items may be uncertain, an article points out.)
For her longest period of time working north of Chicago Vivian was employed by the Ginsburg family, where it was a real Fifties-Sixties neighborhood, with lots of kids playing together on the sidewalks and lawns all the time and she hovering around, and of course taking pictures. Inger Raymond is here, as she is in Maloof's film, describing the rooms upstairs Vivian filled with stuff and piles of newspapers. Inger's mother was a newspaper photography editor, she tells Nicholls, but Vivian never showed her any of her photos. Inger is the one who tells a tale of physical abuse to Maloof (which he cut, but not entirely). She describes a harsher, grumpier "Miss Maiers" to both filmmakers, but is less dramatic to Nicholls. She says "Miss Maiers" took the train to Chicago evenings, seeking the city to take more pictures of the kind that was, perhaps, her true vocation, of the underclass -- to fit her leftist leanings. A Nicholls talking head among the grownup children Maier cared for is Richard Baylaender. His father used to speak French with Vivian "around the dinner table." She was opinionated, "extremely abrasive," and "pretty much in your face."
Maloof's film moves toward the end into an increasingly dark and negative picture of the aging Vivian Maiers, brutal, harsh, unpredictable, keeping piles of newspapers in her bedroom you could barely move through, going beyond eccentric into crazy. This may well be true, but Nicholls downplays it or did not find it.
In some ways the Maloof-Siskel film causes confusion. He shows a self-declared expert on French vowel sounds who knew Vivian as a child and says her accent was fake, and he presents Maier's being born in New York as a great revealed secret. Her accent might be slightly Austrian? Anway this clouds the fact that Vivian was, in fact, a native French speaker, who went to school in the village of Saint Bonnet-en-Champsaur for six formative years. Maloof goes to Saint Bonnet-en-Champsaur too, which leads to the revelation of a letter proposing her photos be printed by a shop there, which is a bit of a red herring. Nicholls talks to former schoolmates of Vivian in the village whose words are charming and suggest a pretty girl the boys liked and all found exotic, a Vivian who might have ended up differently.
After the six years in the village came twelve somewhat vague ones back in NYC. Then Vivian visited the village again at 24, just after the war, when her heavy photo-taking this time made some villagers think her a spy. She returned to New York in the spring of 1951, and then became a nanny. Her photo of Dali outside MoMA shows she probably went to the show Five French Photographers. Clearly she was teaching herself about photography, memorizing the vision on this occasion of Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Ronis, and Izis. This is a key piece of evidence, if any were needed, that Maier trained her eye and was well acquainted with twentieth-century candid photography. The question keeps coming back whether she went beyond talented emulation to a style of her own. It remains to see more of the work. Meanwhile, Meyerowitz (again, to Nicholls) is convincing when he argues that a street photographer is by nature a loner, so mystery or not -- and there is not as much mystery left after all the documentation -- Vivian Maier was simply what she needed to be. An artist who works without feedback from others may be at a disadvantage. But it is not important to dwell on Maier's personality or the odd contrast between stunted, nineteenth-century servant life and her twentieth-century documentation of the visual world. What is important is to find what she has to tell us that is new.
The Vivian Maier Mystery (originally Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny's Pictures?), 70 mins., originally showed on the BBC's "Imagine Series," 25 June 2013 (Season 21, Episode 1). Royal Television Society's best arts documentary award 2013. Recut to 50 mins. for US distribution it debuted 17 December 2013 (VOD, on Amazon).
Finding Vivian Maier, 83 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2013 and entered US cinemas 28 March 2014. Screened for this review at Landmark Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley, CA, 7 May 2014.
©2014 Chris Knipp