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.

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