“Well, I suppose nothing is meant to last forever. We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel. You get on, you have to go to the end. And then somebody has the same opportunity to go to the end and so on.” – Vivian Maier
Have you seen Finding Vivian Maier? It’s an incredible documentary directed by John Maloof. Maloof grew up in a family that was very familiar with auction houses, storage units, and other forms of wholesale foreclosure sales. While researching old photography for a thesis paper, Maloof attended an auction sale. At that sale he purchased (for less than $400) a massive collection of negatives. The negatives weren’t the type of photographs he was looking for, but what he found forever changed the direction of John’s life.
We now consider Ms. Vivian Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) to have been an American street photographer born in New York City. In life, she was a nanny that lived under many assumed aliases, drifting from family to family (closely touching no less than one-hundred lives throughout her career). Although she was born in the U.S., it was in France that Ms. Maier spent most of her youth. When she returned to the U.S. in 1951, she took up work as a nanny and care-giver. It’s also been confirmed that Ms. Maier spent her later years alone, possibly feeling misunderstood.
As I watched Finding Vivian Maier, it became increasingly clear that Vivian Maier chose to be a nanny because it afforded her the ability to be out in the world, seeing life as it was happening. Consistently taking photos over the course of five decades, she would ultimately leave well over 150,000 negatives, most of them shot in Chicago and New York City. He obsession with documenting memories didn’t stop with photography either. Maloof has also found hundreds of homemade 8MM films, audio recordings, and massive collections of everything from old newspapers, to receipts, too any kind of item that held some emotional value to her. This collection is a fascinating window into American life in the second half of the twentieth century through one person’s lens.
How do we quantify the accomplishments of Vivian Maier? She seemingly lived her life in the name of art and creative progress, but her true talent was unknown except by those with a personal connection to her. She shot photographs for almost fifty years with zero fame or notoriety during her own life. Does this signify that she cared nothing for money or fame, but instead cared only about the art of the photo? Was she most concerned with the human condition she was able to capture, closely documenting that these moments in time took place? Was it her fear of failure that stopped her from showing her photography? Was it some combination of all three? This is incredibly important to me. For years now I’ve been working to align my art in some way with my financial necessities without losing my own personal and artistic integrity. I think that all of us trying to create great art for ourselves, will work entire lives to balance a sense of what true art is with the sense of the validation we need on a socio-economic level.
I find I feel most like the truest version of myself when I’m surrounded with life. For me, it’s not necessarily where I am, but why I’m there. I think Vivian Maier understood that internal growth is created from reactions to occurrences happening around ourselves. There’s so much life in the world, all we’ve got to do is look for it. New York has always drawn artists towards its hustle and bustle for this reason. Photographers like Berenice Abbott, Ted Croner, Saul Leiter, and even Stanley Kubrick, are remembered as part of the important and influential group of the artists working within the New York School of Photography that helped document street life in a city of forgotten names and faces. Although unknown at the time, Vivian Maier is now deservedly being mentioned in the same breath as those photographers.
Check out the trailer to Finding Vivian Maier above. As of this date of publish, iTunes currently has the documentary available to purchase for $14.99. It’s well worth the price.
Photos courtesy of VivianMaier.com.