Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Vivian Maier: A Photographer's Life and Afterlife II

The remainder of the book was a little tedious to read, but on the whole I have found it rewarding. Vivian Maier, from a research standpoint, is an extremely challenging topic. If a few business people hadn't chanced upon her possessions, it seems likely that no one would ever have heard of her, and the current situation, in which she is a famous dead photographer, would never have arisen. She would have been nothing more than an eccentric hoarder who was almost forgotten before she had even died. The saga continues, because copyright issues remain, the full extent of Maier's work is not known to the public, and further details about her life may yet emerge. Bannos's writing style is somewhat academic, and therefore somewhat less readable than it might have been. Structurally, the book is not chronological, so it jumps back and forth in time, rather than presenting the information in a more intelligible historical sequence. The story of her life is interwoven with her ascent as a popular photographer after her death, with grating transitions in the text. I have had to edit my previous post as various details of Maier's life became clearer to me.

Vivian Maier is particularly problematic, because she does not seem to have made any effort to forge a career as a photographer. The evidence indicates that she simply enjoyed her photographic routine and didn't care about an audience, friendships, intimacy or family life. From a strictly artistic standpoint, her work is complicated by the fact that she did not generally perform or supervise the production of prints of her photographs, leaving most of those choices to strangers whom she never met. In addition, she took thousands of photographs, and it is not known exactly which ones she thought were satisfactory or why. Her brother, Karl, with whom she had no contact as an adult, spent part of his life in a psychiatric institution, and, given her eccentricities, it would be reasonable to assume that she also had an unusual psychological profile. Nevertheless, to the extent that her photographs speak for themselves, she definitely had a photographic talent, and, as Bannos documents, she owned cameras which were state-of-the-art for the time and tried an assortment of photographic techniques in the pursuit of the particular results that she wanted, and in this respect she seems to have been no different from most artists.

Maier's adult life as a photographer falls into two main periods, based on geography. After her trip to Europe in 1950-1951, she remained in New York working as a nanny, and she became a competent street photographer, producing a large batch of photographs. In 1955, she briefly moved to Los Angeles and obtained a nanny position there. She explored the area, but apparently didn't like it, and the same year she moved to San Francisco, where she found another job. Throughout her life, one of her photographic subjects was celebrities, Hollywood stars in particular, but she didn't like Los Angeles and later disparaged it as a kind of wasteland. Apparently, she didn't like San Francisco either, and by early 1956, she had moved to the Chicago area for unknown reasons, and she spent the remainder of her life there, other than vacations. Her longest employment was in Highland Park, but she also held positions throughout the North Shore and in other suburbs.

Maier maintained great privacy with her employers, requesting a lock for her door if there wasn't one on it already, and as time passed she accumulated a vast hoard of objects, which became heavy and bulky, in one case requiring her employer to put a brace beneath her room in order to support the sagging floor. Some of her hoarding seems compulsive, particularly her penchant for saving newspapers and photographs of them. As a photographer, she seemed to have enjoyed the process more than the product in many cases, and she was skilled at stalking her subjects, usually taking a series of photographs of them in rapid succession. She spent most of her off-hours walking around with cameras wherever she went, and sometimes, on excursions, she neglected the children who were in her charge.

The most challenging biographical aspect of Maier's life is that she was secretive and had no known significant relationships. After she left New York at the age of 29, she never saw any family members again, except during a brief visit to France in 1959. There only remain anecdotal accounts of conversations she had, and sometimes she would come into contact with a person regularly without divulging her name. For example, she spoke several times to a lifeguard, who also had photographic interests, at the beach in Gillson Park in Wilmette (where I used to go). Her employers obtained varying amounts of information from her, but none of them knew her well, because she always remained private and independent. Her personal manner was often imperious, and as a nanny she seems to have resembled a Germanic Mary Poppins. In fact, though she hardly knew him, her personality may have been inherited from her father, who was a German-speaking Austro-Hungarian. She always claimed to be French, which was convenient for her vocation, but she actually was American and had only spent six years in France. In conversation, she was opinionated and condescending toward Americans. For her, New York City was culturally superior to the rest of the country. She was well-informed about the news and owned many books, but Bannos doesn't seem to know which books she read, perhaps because those were the first things to go when her possessions were sold. Retrospectively, there is no large body of information readily available about her, because she was basically an anonymous person throughout her life. Imagine the difficulties that would confront a biographer if they attempted to document an unknown person like you, who had left no written trail, had barely entered into the consciousness of others in the course of their life and was no longer available for interviews. In Maier's case there is the enormous quantity of photographs and film that themselves document her whereabouts and activities, which simplifies matters in some respects but doesn't answer all of the questions. There is a point at which the paltry accumulated anecdotes about Maier seem insurmountable and inadequate.

Bannos also had to deal with the media hype about Vivian Maier generated by promoters who didn't know much about her or conduct any serious research themselves. The film, Finding Vivian Maier, is primarily a promotional one for the benefit of John Maloof, who had been violating copyright laws along with several others in the distribution of her work. The book devotes quite a bit of space to copyright issues for this reason. I would have preferred it if Bannos had allocated more space to Maier's photographs instead. Many pages are filled with descriptions of photographs that aren't included in the book, and, with this leaving me rather frustrated, I have ordered a couple of books of her photographs in order to see them, because that is what remains of the greatest interest to me, given that any additional information about Maier is likely to be piecemeal and incomplete.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Vivian Maier: A Photographer's Life and Afterlife I

I'm halfway through this biography, which is written by Pamela Bannos, a professor of photography at Northwestern University. Vivian Maier came to my attention when I saw the film, Finding Vivian Maier, in December, 2014 and commented here under "Art as Historical Record." The film offered an incomplete picture of Maier and her work, and this book is providing greater clarity, though many aspects of Maier's life remain a mystery. Bannos has done a lot of digging, and the book reads like a combination of detective work and a history of photography.

The actual circumstances of the discovery of Vivian Maier's photographs seem different from what I recall in the film. Maier was living in an apartment on Sheridan Road in Rogers Park, Illinois, and had placed most of her possessions in several storage units. The contents included negatives, prints, short films, slides, books and magazines that she had collected over the course of her life. Apparently, ownership of the storage units changed, and since no one was making payments for her units, the contents were put up for auction. In 2007, various resellers bought portions of the contents at low prices without knowing exactly what they had or where Vivian Maier was, and they almost immediately began selling items on eBay. In November, 2008, Vivian Maier slipped on ice near her apartment and hit her head. She never recovered and died in 2009 at the age of 83. Some of the resellers saw her obituary and identified her as the photographer at that time. There has been a lot of fanfare about Vivian Maier, including worldwide exhibitions of her work, but many of the people who have been promoting her, including the makers of Finding Vivian Maier, have primarily been entrepreneurs rather than art historians or photography experts, and this is one of the first books on Maier of biographical value.

Part of my interest in Maier is that I lived in proximity to her, though not always simultaneously. She worked as a nanny in Highland Park, Illinois, where I later lived for nine years, and I drove past her apartment on Sheridan Road many times while she was still living there. My family also once lived in the same neighborhood in Manhattan where she once lived. I think that some of her photographs are good, and that she has captured events in a way that effectively records the culture and style in various locations at specific times. In addition, there are psychological clues in her photographs that are indicative of her background and worldview and reflect a level of self-expression in her work that gives it an artistic flavor.

Many aspects of Maier's background were grim. Her maternal grandmother, Eugenie Jassaud, grew up on a farm in southeastern France and in 1896 became pregnant by a farmhand at the age of 15. In 1901 she sailed to New York, leaving behind her illigitimate daughter, Marie, and never returned to France. She became a cook for wealthy families in Manhattan and on estates in the surrounding areas, and, though never wealthy herself, she lived in opulent surroundings for much of her life. Marie was brought to the U.S. in 1914 at the age of 17 and lived with her mother until adulthood. She became a domestic servant in Manhattan and married a Hungarian immigrant. They first had a son, Karl, in 1920, and Vivian was born in 1926; they separated permanently around the time of Vivian's birth. Karl apparently didn't live with Vivian for long, and brother and sister hardly knew each other. Karl became a petty criminal and was incarcerated. With what little information is available, Marie seems to have been an ineffectual and irresponsible person, receiving financial assistance from her mother well into adulthood. In 1932, she returned to France with Vivian, then six years old, and lived there until 1938, when they returned to Manhattan. Vivian thus received French schooling for six years. By 1943, at the age of seventeen, Vivian had left home and was living as a lodger and working in a doll factory. Her grandmother, Eugenie, died in 1948, and Vivian returned to France in 1950 partly to settle her estate, which included 170 acres and a farmhouse. Although Vivian may have taken photographs before 1950, her trip to France included an extended tour of Europe, during which she took her first known ones.

Photography was emerging as a career and as an art form during Maier's lifetime, and it seems probable that she considered it as a potential career early on. She may have entered popular photography contests and lost. There is very little direct input from knowledgeable sources about Maier so far in the book, and I am hoping that there will be more information from people who actually knew her later on. As it stands, Maier is a perfect vehicle for psychological speculation.

My thinking is that she was born into a divided class structure at the height of the Roaring Twenties and remained in the lower stratum during the Great Depression, and that this affected her self-perception for the remainder of her life. There is no evidence that she ever tried to break out of the servant class, and her strategy seems to have been to live an intensely private life while eking out a meager subsistence as a nanny. Her private life seems to have centered on her hobby, photography, which she apparently never discussed with anyone. In the photographs I've seen, she gravitates toward babies, children and the underclass, including homeless people. The ones that I find the most interesting are her self-portraits, where she appears in a reflection or as a shadow. While there is no clear interpretation that makes itself apparent, one might surmise that they are affirmations of her identity, showing that she had a presence in the world, but also indicating that she occupied the background as a marginal player in society. Most of her life must have been lived very frugally, with little money to spare. Many of the negatives in storage were never developed, perhaps because she couldn't afford to develop them. However, other than the fact that her living conditions were less than optimal, it is of no real importance that she was not recognized during her lifetime. There is a great deal of artifice in the works of prominent photographers, who are often good at self-promotion or start with greater financial resources. The world that they and Vivian Maier chronicled is the same world, only her work contains less pretense and spin.

I should be finishing the book fairly soon and will make another post on it.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Diary

I started to read the latest Krasznahorkai book but gave up after several attempts. It consists of short chapters and stories, and I couldn't be bothered with it, since no clear narrative jumped out and I had to put up with a lot of stylistic nonsense that had no appeal to me. There is a conceit about writing and the role of the writer that occasionally makes writers seem ludicrous. I have found this on several occasions when I've delved into the works of critically acclaimed authors. If a fiction writer is considered important, the presumption it that he or she will sit at a desk and churn out masterpiece after masterpiece, but the reality is that they will be lucky if they can produce two good books, and the rest are likely to be marginal at best. This is generally true of the main fiction writers I've investigated as an adult: Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, Julio Ramón Ribeyro, Cormac McCarthy, David Lodge, A.S. Byatt, László Krasznahorkai, Patrick Chamoiseau, Michel Houellebecq  and Lorrie Moore. While they may manage to maintain a roughly consistent level of quality, they all have human limitations, which makes it impossible for them to produce an unbroken sequence of masterpieces. In some cases their celebrity goes to their head, thus Flaubert's Salammbô, which was written between Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education, was well-received initially in France but is widely ignored today. A writer's perception of his or her strengths may be completely at odds with the perceptions of their readers, and their idea of a superior work may be off-putting to the reading public. In my experience, novelists tend to produce their best works in early-to-mid-career, and toward the end they usually stick to tried-and-true formulas, slyly succumb to market forces or experiment beyond their writing capabilities. George Eliot was more consistent than most: her last novel, Daniel Deronda, is at least as good as most of her earlier ones, but she also delved into poetry, which no one reads today. Krasznahorkai, in my opinion, has a genuine writing talent, but it seems to me that he is stuck in a style that has limited flexibility and makes it impossible for him to convey some of the realism and social observation that I find indispensable to fiction.

My criticism of fiction has become one of the major themes of this blog, and, in order not to appear arrogant, I have refrained from saying that my problem may be that I know more than the authors do, and that they have little to offer me. This may not be true in an absolute sense, but I think I deserve some credit for having walked the planet longer than most of the above-mentioned authors, and before it's over I may have lived longer than all of them. Good fiction may not be synonymous with knowledge or experience, but you certainly wouldn't expect sixteen-year-olds to write good novels, no matter how talented they were. For undiscriminating readers who consume fiction in much the same way that they watch soap operas – as light entertainment or background noise – this may not apply, but I tend to be serious in everything that I do, and I react when I notice qualitative deficiencies and gimmicks. Besides this, as I've said, writing programs seem to have the opposite effect of their intended purpose, often producing polished gibberish in the place of raw gibberish, and the commercialization of fiction in an era of sophisticated marketing tends to support formulas known to sell well to specific audiences; if you don't happen to fit a market profile, you're probably out of luck as a reader.

Therefore, I am going to suspend reading fiction for the time being, and I'm looking for some good nonfiction at the moment. I find this challenging too, but the universe of nonfiction is much larger than the universe of fiction, and there are sure to be books out there that I'll appreciate. For example, the biography of Milosz, which I recently stumbled upon, was quite satisfying to me. In a way, I am starting to find writers more interesting as case studies in human life than as artists producing impressive works; their books become points of departure in the exploration of their psyches and lives, and this has the potential to result in a greater revelation than any writer is capable of offering in a creative work. Thus, I think memoirs and biographies have more potential than novels or short stories. Unfortunately, there don't seem to be many good memoirs or biographies, but I'll continue to look. My fallback will be other forms of nonfiction, such as popular scientific books and book-length essays.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Girl Power

While I find the political situation in the U.S. deplorable, with the arrival of a vulgar, uninformed, bombastic, self-interested and dishonest president, I've noticed that the strong reaction against him may bring unexpected benefits. Feminism in the U.S. seems to move in waves over many decades, and the appearance of Donald Trump on the national scene seems to have precipitated a new one, which is impressive in its ferocity. Although it may be arguable whether Trump caused the #MeToo movement, it seems as if the latest round of sexual harassment protest dates to October, 2016, with the release of the Access Hollywood audio tape, in which Trump discussed women with Billy Bush. Trump was subsequently accused of sexual harassment by several women. A women's movement specifically targeting Trump began in 2016, and this, I think, recently led to the dismissal of several prominent male public figures from their jobs on the basis of sexual misconduct. The speed with which famous men have been removed from corporate, political and film positions is surprising when you consider how entrenched and unchallenged that behavior was until now.

As I've said, I like to view human behavior from a biological standpoint, and in this respect Trump is a typical male. He tries to dominate the situations he's in and cultivates an aura of success, and this is consistent with the behavior of many species, in which males go to considerable lengths to attract females. Other males are outdone in displays of fitness, including physical characteristics and the ability to win contests. Among humans, being a rich alpha male usually guarantees the privilege of mating with women, the net result of which is the production of children. When you closely examine the shortcomings of most alpha males, it becomes readily apparent that there is not necessarily any social benefit derived from the process, which seems biologically to have had to do mainly with their reproduction. Though they may have other talents, Trump-esque men often have far less to offer society than meets the eye, and when you examine them in the context of the highly complex modern world, they tend to be anachronisms who have wildly overstated their capabilities. If Trump were a peacock, would you vote for him? Some characteristics often associated with males, such as competitiveness, may serve purposes unrelated to attracting mates, but that has always been one of their primary functions.

The mating strategies of women are obviously quite different from those of men. They also need to exhibit fitness, which indicates that they are likely to produce healthy offspring, but in their case, if they are sufficiently attractive, they choose among suitors rather than compete with other women directly. In nature, receptive females usually acquire mates effortlessly, whereas some males compete unsuccessfully with other males and do not reproduce. Thus, females have less biological incentive to act aggressively. On the contrary, women, as members of a eusocial species, have an added incentive to offer and receive help from other women in the interest of raising their offspring, which is a daunting task due to the unusually long time period from birth to independence in our species. Of course, women can be aggressive, but under normal circumstances this does not involve physical confrontations or intimidation, which are common among men.

I am bringing this up because I think that greater political participation by women and increased inclusion of women in leadership roles would have a positive influence on society, particularly if it followed the leadership of autocratic demagogues such as Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin. In a general biological sense, women have no incentive to assert their power for its own sake and are more likely to be sensitive to social needs than aggressive men. Although Putin is popular in his country and certainly knows how to run it to meet his goals, those goals are not the same as the long-term goals of all Russians. Putin is a Soviet-era autocrat whose policies are not likely to endure for long after he leaves office. The situation with Trump is somewhat worse, because he is incompetent even as an autocrat and therefore has nothing to offer Americans on any level at all. During his tenure, the federal government is losing what little coherence it had, and he is exposing the country to unnecessary new risks.

Because I look at our world biologically, a government in which females dominate must also be examined closely. While such a government might be characterized by greater order and more careful allocation of resources, as in a hive dominated by a queen bee, the goal of creating a large factory to produce and raise offspring is not necessarily what Homo sapiens wants or needs at this stage in its evolution. In the past, when I lived in the suburbs of Chicago, I sometimes felt as if I were trapped in a hive of women who were obsessed with raising their children, as if that was the only thing that mattered in life. Thus, while there is much to be said against alpha males, the female opposite is not exactly everyone's cup of tea.

Nevertheless, it is encouraging to me that women seem to be uniting in large numbers against Donald Trump, because, if they follow through and vote, his tenure will end sooner than it might otherwise. Fortunately, minorities and young people of both sexes also find little to like in Trump or today's Republican Party, and their popularity is dwindling. I am heartened that I am not the only one who feels that Trump's exit couldn't be soon enough. Though Trump's behavior may be rooted in inherited tendencies that once played a role in our survival as a species, it would be an absurdity of the highest order to suggest that, given his behavior since he took office, he could be of any benefit whatsoever to mankind.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Diary

I haven't been writing as much as usual, because I haven't had much to say. Recently, I've been spending more time on active investing, since this seems to be a unique moment. Interest rates and inflation have been falling since I first began to invest in 1981, and we seem to have reached an inflection point where that pattern will reverse, which will change the investment environment considerably, while also requiring strategic changes. Because of this, I re-subscribed to the Wall Street Journal, which has good coverage of the relevant topics. I had been subscribing to The New York Times, but let that subscription expire. Actually, the two newspapers are not as different as you may think, and their headlines and stories are often very similar, with lots of additional nonsense articles to attract readers' attention. However, in recent months I have come to appreciate the editorials of the New York Times editorial board, and I still read those. You can read the paper online as much as you like without subscribing by deleting their cookies in your browser.

Not long ago, I made the mistake of reading reader comments in the Wall Street Journal and began to comment myself. I soon found that the environment is completely partisan, and if you make any criticism of Donald Trump, you will be viciously attacked by commenters who have no interest in facts and immediately label you in demeaning terms. After a few rounds of this, I decided that some of the attackers may be paid for their work, and that there is no point in attempting to engage them. I am not going to read comments there anymore, and I sent an e-mail to the Wall Street Journal to complain about this state of affairs.

The partisan atmosphere in the U.S. has reached monumental proportions, and the actions taken by Trump and his allies grow increasingly absurd. The lies and cover-ups taking place now are going to make Richard Nixon look like a choirboy. It is becoming harder and harder to imagine any scenario in which Trump was not somehow compromised by previous associations with Russia, and this will all come out eventually. Moreover, many of the people who have been willing to risk their careers to support him do not seem to be competent themselves; rather, he has surrounded himself with marginal political operatives who were unable to find better meal tickets. Trump and his family attract the bottom-feeders. The most disturbing aspect of the Trump era is that there are still Republicans who support him. In previous years they would have yanked him out of office by now for willfully undermining and discrediting the FBI, which has always been a sacred institution to conservatives.

In other news, I've been driving my new car a little. It has very good acceleration, but I can't crank it up yet, since the engine isn't broken in. Some of the features are quite exotic. After you come to a stop facing uphill, when you start up again, it automatically holds the brakes briefly so that the car doesn't roll backwards at all when you release the brake. The car has several external sensors. They identify the centerline of the road, and you are alerted if you begin to leave your lane. They also find suitable parking places for you and can control your steering when you parallel park. I haven't tried that yet, as I very rarely parallel park here. For many years I didn't buy a GTI, because they were expensive, and Volkswagens are unreliable compared to the major Japanese brands. Now that I am retired, I am less concerned about reliability, since I drive so little. Also, because of the diesel engine scandal, Volkswagen is attempting to make amends, and I have a fantastic warranty: six years or 72,000 miles. I'll be nowhere near 72,000 miles in six years.

I like to read charts, and today I found this one rather interesting, in light of some of my posts. Obviously, there is a lot of speculation in it, but the overall thrust is probably accurate:


Perhaps I'll start reading Krasznahorkai soon and return to literature on my next post.