Understanding Vivian Maier

By Matthew Clayfield
In a world obsessed with sharing images, what should we make of a street photographer who hoarded them?
Self-portrait, New York, 10 September 1955. © Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

The strange tale of Vivian Maier has been well rehearsed by now. It has been the subject of countless articles, innumerable gallery programs, two documentaries and at least one court case. For those who haven’t heard it before, it goes a little like this.

In 2007, John Maloof, a Chicago-based collector and real estate developer, purchased about 30,000 negatives at a fire sale, hoping he might be able to use some of the photographs in a book he was co-writing about the Chicago suburb of Portage Park. What he discovered instead was a heretofore unknown street photographer whose work he started uploading to the internet. The work in question quickly went viral.

When Maloof first googled the name he had found scribbled on scraps of paper among the negatives, the internet had drawn a curious blank. When he googled it again two years later, after the images had begun to make waves online, something finally popped up: an obituary. Maier died before learning of her new-found fame and by most accounts would have preferred it that way. This was not some overlooked artist whose ambition had faded into bitterness with the decades. This was a painfully private woman who worked as a nanny for 40 years and never showed her work to anyone.

Since then, Maier’s reputation has skyrocketed, with exhibitions taking place all over the world. It has done so in part because the work demands it, drawing comparisons with that of Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and others. But there’s no getting around the fact that the story behind the work, with its air of mystery and its unanswered questions, has played as large a role in her posthumous success as the images themselves. How does someone produce such a monumental body of work – 15,000 negatives and change – and let it go unseen for the term of her natural life? Why didn’t she tell anyone what she was doing, or why? These questions represent a boon to publicists, curators and dealers, not to mention to Maloof himself, who put them at the heart of his Oscar-nominated 2013 documentary Finding Vivian Maier. But they also tend to get in the way of a clear-eyed assessment of the work.

The Palazzo Ducale in Genoa, Italy, is currently hosting an exhibition of that work, giving visitors an opportunity to examine and judge it on its own merits. It is solid, accomplished, occasionally arresting stuff, characterised by unbridled curiosity, visual wit, an eye for pattern and texture, and an air of democratic or social responsibility. Maier was arguably at her best as a portraitist (and self-portraitist), with the unobtrusive nature of her medium-format Rolleiflex camera, held at waist height, combining with what one assumes was an unobtrusive way of approaching strangers, resulting in unguarded images of mid-century humanity of the highest, most empathetic order.

At the same time, her work isn’t without its shortcomings. Maier’s instinct for composition was unreliable at best and many of her images could stand a little cropping. For every masterful portrait or street scene in the archive, there are several more on the level of mere snapshots that could and should have been left in the box. (I’m reminded of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Picasso: Love & War 1935–1945, its Winter Masterpieces blockbuster from about a decade ago, which mindlessly treated ephemera from Dora Maar’s archives, such as newspapers Picasso doodled on over breakfast, as though they were somehow on the level of Guernica.)

These shortcomings, though, speak less to Maier’s inability to recognise them than to Maloof’s unseemly rush to get everything she ever did onto a gallery wall. After all, with so much of her work undeveloped at the time of her death, unseen even by her, Maier never had the opportunity to pore over contact prints, make editorial decisions with a bright red pen and shape her artistic legacy. She might also have been less aware of her shortcomings than some other artists for precisely this reason and less able to address them moving forward. While this is a shame, and detracts from the quality of the whole, Maloof has at least left that whole as he found it. He hasn’t gone cropping what needs to be cropped in an attempt to become some kind of co-creator.

He has, however, benefited financially from merely playing art dealer. He maintains that his goal has never been to capitalise on Maier’s work, but simply to get it out into the world. If that means he needs to recoup the small fortune he’s spent scanning her huge back catalogue, well, who could blame him? To make sure he was legally entitled to do so, he tracked down a Frenchman he believed to be Maier’s last living relative and purchased the rights to the work for a cool $5000. Another last living relative was duly brought out of the woodwork by an overzealous copyright lawyer who thought it might be fun to throw a spanner in the works and the matter wound up in court. The details of the settlement haven’t been made public.

Readers will note that I have once again found myself tangled in the story of the work as opposed to the work itself. The fact of the matter is that it’s almost impossible not to become so: unless one has never heard of Maier—which at this point seems unlikely—the story cannot but intrude on one’s experience of her photographs. The most common way in which it does so is to induce a strange but palpable sense of confusion or anxiety in the viewer, a sense that it is impossible to square her output and its quality with her reluctance to share it. In Finding Vivian Maier, one of Maier’s acquaintances states that the photographer’s images were “her babies” and that “she wouldn’t have put her babies on display”. But another claims, with equal conviction, that “I don't think she took all those photographs for them to just dissolve into dust. I think she took those photographs to be seen.” The photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who died two years after the documentary was made, sums up the gaping chasm between these positions, and thus gives voice to the viewer’s unease, when she tells Maloof, “Something is wrong … there’s a piece of the puzzle missing.”

Is it any surprise we should feel this way? We live in a world awash in the work of amateur image-makers. Thanks to our phones, everyone is, or can be, a photographer, and thanks to social media, with its disturbingly fickle economy of likes, loves and shares, everyone is, or can become, famous for it. In 2016, almost 85 million videos and photographs were uploaded to Instagram every day. On Facebook, the number was closer to 350 million. The Vivian Maier story disturbs at least in part because it so thoroughly repudiates the image-making and -sharing practices that so many of us now take for granted.

That her work should recall the forms that the vast majority of social media images take only adds to this sense of unease: the square formats, the self-portraits, even, in a way, in the high-contrast black and white of her early work and the narcotic colour of her later years, like the filters we apply without a second thought with another mindless touch of the screen. Her images are somehow like ours and yet completely unlike them in their essential function: in part because they were never seen during her lifetime, they were not, and could not be, advertisements for the self. We may laugh at Kim Kardashian’s 2015 book of selfies, Selfish, roll our eyes when we learn that Audrey Tautou exhibited a series of self-portraits at a major photography festival. But at least we know what to make of such projects: they are simply extreme examples of our own. Maier’s work is the ultimate exception and seems somehow to chide us for not living up to its standard.

I used the word “amateur” above and in doing so did the word a disservice. For the vast majority of social media users are actually onanistic image-makers, not in love with photography, but with themselves. There is evidence to suggest that Maier wasn’t really in love with photography, either, and that she didn’t consider her project especially artistic in nature. Finding Vivian Maier attempts to argue that she did, but its argument is only halfway convincing. (What’s more, Maloof obviously has a dog in the fight.) Indeed, if the documentary suggests anything, despite itself or otherwise, it’s that she was simply an inveterate hoarder, collecting newspapers, political campaign pins and receipts at least as doggedly as she collected images of the world around her. (There’s a scene in which one of Maier’s former employers recalls entering the nanny’s bedroom and being confronted by stacks of newspapers through which one had to navigate a narrow path to the bed. It sounds like something out a horror movie.)

But to the extent that Maier collected these things with passion, she was in fact the very definition of an amateur: she was indeed one who loves. If we approach her life from this perspective, with her collection rather than the negatives that comprised it at its centre, the fact that she left so many rolls of film undeveloped and never approached galleries or dealers with her work, begins to make more sense. It was the collecting of the images, the taking of them, “the decisive moment”, as Henri Cartier-Bresson memorably put it, that Maier held most dear. Everything that followed the click of the shutter was ultimately beside the point. There’s something remarkably pure about that, even something strangely moral. That we find that purity inexplicable – that the strange tale of Vivian Maier continues to bewilder and unsettle – says more about us and our own compromised relationship with the image than it ever will about the photographer or hers.

Matthew Clayfield

Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent and travel writer.

Self-portrait, New York, 10 September 1955. © Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

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