10 May 2016


Vivian Maier, Armenian Woman Fighting on East 86th Street, September, 1956. New York, NY.

I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors are perhaps never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.

– Edith Wharton, “The Fullness of Life”, 1893

One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born.

Ever since some larger portions of her far beyond 100,000 photographic exposures were unboxed in 2007, people have been raving about the “two different lives” of Vivian Maier (1926–2009) and the “mysteriousness” and “solitude” of this woman who was both a nanny and an unknown artist with a rare talent for street photography, oh my. The petulant Maier was, probably and respectfully, quite like the peculiar character Macabéa in Clarice Lispector’s short novel The Hour of the Star (1977), “incompetent for life”. Miss Maier was outwardly kooky but inwardly free.

In order to understand the nature of her secret field of photography, why she actually chose to keep her work private, we have to get into the definition of the word soliloquy: A dramatic or literary form of discourse in which a character talks to himself or herself or reveals his or her thoughts when alone or unaware of the presence of other characters. One might also claim that many of the portraits that Maier took of other people, people she did not know but surely related to, were to one degree or another a representation or a reflection of how Maier looked at herself.

“The people never smiles, they are themselves, they deliver their own soul to her. I think that ordinary people abandoned themselves to the pictures, to her thing,” says Anne Morin, Director of diChroma Photography in Madrid – and the curator behind Vivian Maier in Her Own Hands at Kulturhuset in Stockholm – to The Stockholm Review. “Even when you see the pictures she took at the end of the 1940s in France, everything is there. It’s the same portraits, exactly the same framing – it is amazing because she had made clear in that time what was the specificity of photography.”

“Vivian Maier represents an extreme instance of posthumous discovery,” writes Geoff Dyer in Vivian Maier, Street Photographer. “It also says something of the unknowable potential of all human beings.” She was eighty-one years old and living in a nice place in Rogers Park in Chicago – paid for by two of her former boys, and the first ever home of her own – when footsteps appeared around her innermost room, the storage space for Maier’s entire photographic oeuvre. Throughout her life, Maier was a law unto herself – until the day she could no longer keep up the payments for storing the hundreds of boxes that suddenly fell into the hands of unknowing bidders. The aforementioned book has a foreword by John Maloof who purchased his initial portion of Maier’s work for 380 dollars: “The chain of events that this discovery set in motion has since turned the world of street photography, as well as my life, upside down.”

There’s a lot of world to see in Maier’s pictures, despite that she almost exclusively photographed the cities of Chicago and New York with its sometimes posh but mostly often indigent citizens. “I’ll be the first to honour the quality of the work,” says street photographer Joel Meyerowitz in the BBC produced The Vivian Maier Mystery (2013), the one to watch of the two documentaries that are running at Kulturhuset’s park-bench cinemas inside the show. Meyerowitz is concerned in this film “because we only see what the people who bought the suitcases decided to edit, and what kind of editors are they? What would she have edited out of this work and what would she have printed? How do any of us know who the real Vivian Maier is?”

If you don’t really know how to prepare Maier’s photographs you can always tout the baffling facets of her character instead, like in Maloof’s Finding Vivian Maier (2013), a documentary that – in the words of Malcolm Jones in The Daily Beast (April 24, 2014) – “bullies us into accepting their greatness” (and he is right about that): “Surely the people into whose hands the work has fallen have a right to publish what they discovered, but when the artist herself is removed from the equation, it becomes a very tricky business,” he argues. “Indeed, a very good film could be made on the subject of who decides who is an artist or who isn’t, especially in the neo-populist era of the web. Not so long ago, gallery owners, collectors, and museum curators were the arbiters of greatness. Maier’s story did an end run on all that. People saw the photographs online and went crazy, and the photography world found itself playing catch up.” (When Maloof presented his Maier pictures to MoMA, however, they didn’t want to have anything do with them.)

The format of the pictures in Vivian Maier in Her Own Hands is the unedited Rolleiflex square, though it is known that Maier used to edit the soupcon of prints she made from her vast catalogue of negatives, and that they were always smaller in size than the ones in the show. “For many people, the discovery of her work has been one of the great unearthings of the age, although what she would have made of the excavation is open to debate,” mulls the almost perfect Anthony Lane in The New Yorker (March 31, 2014). “She might have been appalled by the fuss, or quietly gratified, or both. Or she might just have told us to stop chattering, brush our teeth, and go straight to bed.”

Yes, it’s the nanny who did the Mary Poppins stuff together with the children – the ones who got her behind the peculiarities and the acidic nature of her person. However, while people tend to think of Poppins as the one in the Disney film, the “a spoonful of sugar” nanny was another world from the nanny creations of both Vivian Maier and Pamela Lyndon Travers: “The original Mary Poppins was not cheery at all. She was tart and sharp, rude, plain and vain. That was her charm; that – and her mystery,” as Valerie Lawson expresses in her biography on Travers. “Mary Poppins is unique: lovable because of her mixture of magic and sternness, her fantastic abilities hidden behind the façade of an extremely ordinary woman.”

Other kids called Maier “Bird Lady”. It was something about the way this tall figure walked and how she always overdid her French accent (she was born in the Bronx to a French mother) and how she appeared in outmoded attire as part of some roguish espionage plan that went on in her head. “Maier emanated both the look of an outsider and protagonist,” writes Elizabeth Avedon in her book about Maier’s self-portraits (once again edited by Maloof), portraits that may say something about the photographer’s mental instability, her constant efforts to disguise herself, her humour, the vision she had: “She seemed to embody photographic wisdom beyond her knowledge – always composing, rarely emoting,” Avedon suggests. “I suppose Vivian wasn’t interested I making portraits of herself as a whole, but rather a glimpse or vantage point of the many sides that coexisted in one body.” Think of cortisone junkie Ed Avery (James Mason) in Nicholas Ray’s fantastic Bigger Than Life (1956) as he regards his fractured self in the cracked cabinet mirror.

“You know it’s bad when the French pity you.” Michael Moore does actually say something of value in his Where to Invade Next (2015). In this documentary, he also argues the US should put up signs – much like the Germans did for the crimes they committed during the Holocaust – for the sordid things the government is responsible for at home, especially soon after the war when a majority of the poor lived in the cities. “Great Society liberals, their leader [President Johnson] most of all, wore blinders in their pursuit of greatness,” writes David Farber in The Age of Great Dreams. “Torn out of time, shorn of context, even dimmed by fading memory, images of the 1960s still haunt us, still anger us, still entrance us, still puzzle us.” Maier’s numerous pictures of the misfortunates of New York and Chicago pity the American Way. But she had a Dickensian understanding of the greatness of every one she photographed.

James Baldwin expressed in his essay “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” (1963) how “the poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.” It says a lot about the time we live in that people, post the discovery of her street photography, struggle so much with the basic fact that Maier wasn’t interested in “sharing” her images. So she was a one-woman poet who found her creative outlet in photography, a person who minded herself and who was proud of her self-image as a mystery outcast in two cities full of outcasts. That’s it.

Eric Fromm wrote in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness in 1972 that, “The situation of mankind today is too serious to permit us to listen to demagogues – least of all demagogues who are attracted to destruction – or even to the leaders who use only their brains and whose hearts have hardened. Critical and radical thought will only bear fruit when it is blended with the most precious quality man is endowed with – the love of life.” Joel Meyerowitz calls street photography “an arms-length contact with somebody”. Maier was, as we know, super private. But she understood the street codes – she understood how to get these unknown somebodies into her Rolleiflex. It was some kind of love for life in this. The rooms for the Maier show at Kulturhuset are quite on the cheap side, but curator Anne Morin’s selection of Maier’s photography is just touched by something extra.

Maier wanted the children she had under her wings to be very aware of what was going on in the world. She took them to avant-garde cinemas, she discussed things (though never photography), and she had them explore the city, its unfamiliar monuments, she let them encounter the unseen lives under the elevated railway. Anthony Lane describes how she used to drag “her charges in tow. There were trips to slums and stockyards; a mother once reprimanded her for exposing the children to the wrong part of town, but, as far as Maier was concerned, there was no right part. There was just town, and the lives that it held and broke.”

In one of her not so very sane home recordings, Maier says that, “We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel – you get on, you go to the end, and someone else has the same opportunity to go to the end, and so on, and somebody else takes their place. There’s nothing new under the sun.” The pictures in the Vivian Maier in Her Own Hands exhibition show demolished Chicago buildings and derelict human beings as if they were parts of the same occurrence, under the same old sun. The central theme is people, people, people, and sometimes her own shadow, sometimes her graphical exercises (she uncaged the colours in 1976). Maier’s pictures of America are not as unforgiving as Robert Frank’s. There is still that sense in here that the kidnapped mother gives her young son Jack in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (2015):

“You are gonna love it.”


“The world.”

Vivian Maier, Self-Portrait, 1956.

Vivian Maier in Her Own Hands at Kulturhuset in Stockholm through May 22, 2016.