Vivian Maier still in hiding?

I’m not a true believer when it comes to Vivian Maier. Not that she was a bad photographer, far from it, but I’ve failed to share the kind of fawning hype that seems to have affected so many. Though I can enjoy looking at her work, to me its rather like the ‘Easy Listening’ section that they used to have in record stores. Obviously she had a great interest in photography and a good eye, and a great appreciation of the tradition, but to say, as curator Anne Morin does in her Lensculture interview with Jim CasperShe has a key place in the history of the medium—right next to Robert Frank and all the other great practitioners” seems just ridiculous nonsense.

As Morin makes clear, Maier was very aware of the history of the medium, and looking through the selection of 120 images on Lensculture it’s impossible not to realise some of the sources that inform her work. As you look at the images, its obvious that this one would not have been made had she not been aware of the work of Lisette Model, others completely predicated on her knowledge of Lee Friedlander or Robert Frank … though perhaps she never quite came to terms with Diane Arbus.

Maier didn’t make history, she depended on it, at least in the images we have seen, and Morin is misguided to think that her exhibition “helps place her work in the history of the field.” Perhaps the main point it and her story makes is that she was outside that history making, a mere – if sometimes enjoyable – footnote.

The fascination is very much in the back story, and it is one that has been carefully cultivated in article and film, with more yet to come to light. Morin mentions the link with the young French woman photographer Jeanne Bertrand with whom Vivian’s mother and the young Vivian were lodging in the Bronx at the 1930 census. Though Vivian was then only four, it seems likely that Bertrand was a friend of the family and they may have kept in touch in later years.

Claus Cyrny in his Artificial blog links to writer Jim Leonhirth who has posted the information he has gathered together about Maier’s family from various sources which often contradicts earlier statements and includes the information above about Bertrand, as well as reproducing a page from the Boston Globe in 1902 with a long article about her becoming well known as a photographer in the region at the age of 21.

Bertrand came from the same commune in rural France as Vivian Maier’s mother, where Vivian and her mother went to live from 1935-8 before returning to the USA, where the 1940 census shows them both living with Vivian’s brother and father (both called Charles) in 1940. Other family members, including an aunt and great-uncle also lived in New York, and it is thought that Vivian’s mother had reverted to her maiden name and died in New York in 1975.

Morin says that so far “somewhere between 120,000-150,000” Maier negatives have been found, including “6,000 rolls of film that Maier didn’t even develop” as well as voice recordings on cassette of her thoughts and ideas. She was only able to make her selection for her exhibition from a selection already made by John Maloof. Perhaps in the larger body of work we have yet to see there will somewhere be the real Vivian Maier?

3 Responses to “Vivian Maier still in hiding?”

  1. ChrisL says:

    There are interesting parallels to be drawn, as noted, with Winogrand. Both appear to have been driven to shoot almost as the prime driver,but detached analysis, in both cases, is hard to find, both again in parallel seem to attract very powerful diametrical opposing views.

    A separate point is the archive, if she had left a hard drive of images would anyone ever have even seen the work?

  2. Winogrand’s work was seen by many photographers and was a powerful influence on them, while her work remained hidden away. And Winogrand was saying something new with his pictures. Maier appears – from what we have so far been allowed to see- not to have had anything original to say, but to have been adept at using the ideas of others. But as I suggest, it is possible there is other work which hasn’t been recognised precisely because it doesn’t look like the work of well-known photographers.

    I wonder how many old negatives and prints go into skips. Almost certainly the great majority. I think unless they become well-known in their lifetime it’s the fate of most photographers’ work. If she had been working digitally perhaps her work would have been shared during her lifetime to a much wider audience through Flickr etc.

  3. […] was about to post this as a comment to my post last week, Vivian Maier Still in Hiding, but then I thought people often miss the comments, so instead this short […]

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