I don’t post videos on here often, but this is a sad and amazing story, worth sharing. The woman behind the images is an enigma. A great mystery that may never be solved, and a great photographer who was almost lost.
Vivian Maier really was obsessed with image making. From her self portraits, it seems she can’t help but take a picture of her reflection in the street, as if she needs to reinforce that she is there, so that she won’t be forgotten. She catches glimpses of herself in shop windows, car wing mirrors, her projected image on the streets that she roams so frequently. When a reflection is not available she captures her shadow cast on that very sidewalk, or scene. In her customised (now; trademark hat), she moves like a graffiti artist (upon rooftops, even) consuming the city with her camera, and tagging it with passing presence.
Maier was a real mystery to the people around her. Maybe she was more opinionated and self aware than others around her. I think we have to remember, that in the times and places that she shot these photos, there was great suspicion and paranoia about people who different. Reactions from the general public to her gender,appearance,accent, and her desire to shoot people (all kinds of people) may have left her feeling like an outsider. It is intriguing that her life was disjointed and fragmented, even. Her travels, an absent father, her unmentioned family. and the census records that say she lived in France with notable female photographer Jeanne Bertrand, as a child.
You can only wonder if the photography was a kind of therapeutic and familiar reaction to her surroundings and status. Allowing the streets and strangers to make a narrative for her day. Turning to the camera for comfort, to relieve the boredom, and sadness of being alone. Saying that, she certainly studied and honed her skills, and saw it as a fine art not just as reportage. The images are of a certain time, and also timeless, their use of light and subject matter, resonating so well with the modern audience viewing them for the first time, you wonder why she never attained recognition in her lifetime.
I think that it’s immensely sad that in her old age she struggled financially and was possibly homeless. The time spent in care after a bad fall on ice, would have rendered her unable to get out onto those streets that she had such a close and complex relationship with. It’s awful that this bad fortune lead to a storage company auctioning belongings, her lifeworks, and inevitably splitting up the collection, she had been so fiercly protective and secretive about. Not everyone sees the personal attachment and social value of street photography and photographs as objects.
It is reassuring that young curator John Maloof and his team saw fit to salvage what he could and aim to exhibit and develop the remaining films.
The London Street Photography Festival hosts the first UK exhibition Vivian Maier: A Life Uncovered
01 July to 24 July
German Gymnasium, Pancras Road, London, NW1 2TB
Not Waving but Drowning a poem by Stevie Smith, 1957