Reflecting on Vivian Maier

Ever since I first saw Vivian Maier's work I've been anxious to see the documentary about her life, or what little is known about it.  "Finding Vivian Maier" is currently playing in Austin at the Violet Crown theater and I got a chance to see it.  It was a thought provoking film for me.  I've been mulling it over and wanted to share my thoughts.  I can't promise I won't spoil it, so if you haven't seen it yet you might want to read this later.

From what little I'd read about Vivian I was expecting a story about an eccentric, introverted nanny who happened to enjoy photography.  Her story is more complicated than that, perhaps even tragic in some ways.  The film started on an upbeat note with those who knew her describing her in one word.  I think "paradoxical" was the most fitting.  Her street photography portrayed someone that one might think loved to interact with her world.  In actuality, Vivian was a very private person who, apart from her relationships with the children she cared for as a nanny, shunned relationships.  As the film went on it became evident that there was a darker side to her life.

Interestingly, Vivian sometimes told people she was a spy.  She was quite adept at capturing special intimate moments of people on the streets, but not in a voyeuristic way.  I believe that people were more of an intellectual curiosity to her and she enjoyed observing them while capturing interesting moments.  Many of her photos would have had to have been taken up close, in the personal space of others.  Her use of a twin lens reflex camera with a waist level viewfinder certainly helped her get in close, likely without being noticed most of the time.  It would seem out of character for her to want to interact with others.  I assume she moved in and out of the personal space of others as quickly as possible - stealing a moment before moving on.

I have to admit that street photography is a difficult concept for me and this film certainly didn't help with my concerns.  On the one hand, I appreciate good street images that capture those "decisive moments" as Cartier-Bresson put it.  On the other hand, I have trouble grappling with the feeling that I'm invading someone's privacy.  I'm a rather introverted person myself and I honestly wouldn't be crazy about the idea of someone snapping photos of me as I go about my daily business.  Street photography can seem like stalking a prey - spying as Vivian put it.  I'm not saying street photography is wrong but it's a sensitive area for me.  I suppose it all depends on one's motives.  It's difficult to say with certainty what drove Vivian.  There is a cloud of mystery and deception - she was known to often use a fake name and she spoke with a French accent that was fake as well, according to a linguist expert interviewed in the film.

What would drive a person who values her privacy so greatly to spend her time photographing strangers?  On the surface it seems rather hypocritical.  Perhaps it was Vivian's way of coping with the world - by placing herself in the role of an outside observer, moving around in an environment and documenting it without really being a part of it.  She had what seemed to be an unemotional attraction to interesting subjects or situations - whether they be humorous, sad, or macabre.  Her detachment from her subjects was most evident in a situation where a child she cared for was hit by a car (with no life threatening injuries) and Vivian's response was to just photograph the situation rather than try and render aid.

Vivian had no apparent relationships with family.  What few relatives she had were estranged.  I got the feeling something tragic happened in her past.  Photography may have been her coping mechanism.  It was apparently very important to her.  She shot thousands of rolls of film, sharing her images with no one.  She was a hoarder and she saved things like newspapers and trinkets.  Her collection of photos seemed to be treated no differently to her than any other material thing that she hoarded.

It is ironic that Vivian is now in the spotlight posthumously.  It seems to me that she would have hated it.  Her lens was turned on people that she probably wanted nothing to do with personally.  Now the attention is on her.  In a way I struggle with the idea of her work being distributed knowing she would probably have been vehemently opposed.  However, it's wonderful work and it should be enjoyed, shouldn't it?  Then again, her photos were among her most private of possessions.  The joy of viewing her work is tempered by the thought of intrusion into a personal and private world.  How odd for an artist to create with no intention to share.  I'm still not sure what to make of it.

The film raised more questions than answers about Vivian's life.  While there aren't many leads on her past, I wonder if more disturbing details of her life are yet to be uncovered.  Perhaps it's best to just enjoy her work for the masterful beauty that it is and not dwell on the bizarre nature of her private life.  Ah Vivian, your work inspires and moves me. I've smiled, laughed, and sometimes shed a tear.  Your work is meaningful to a great number of people and it's a pity you never were able to realize that.