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.

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