From the February 2015 issue

New Art

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Dear Miss Maier (for who would dare address you as Vivian, let alone Viv?),

 

Inevitable that I should get crushed out on you, I guess. You seem to be everywhere these days — at least everywhere in my house. On the coffee table, in my study, glowering up at me from the pile of books on the floor at my bedside. You’re wearing your classic 1950s “roaming street photographer” outfit: loose gingham shirtdress (for summer) or tweedy Chicago winter coat; floppy beret or otherwise shapeless hat; men’s shoes; the old-fashioned boxy camera slung louche and low from the leather strap round your neck. Add to these — for Eros demands I must — the unkempt, sometimes elfin-looking hair; the large hands and downward-drooping mouth; the calm, cogent, ever so slightly cruisy look in your Rolleiflex eyes. All of which is to say I’m a monster fan — that I own every one of the high-gloss tomes devoted to your work (six now) published since 2007, when you and your breathtaking oeuvre were discovered in one of the great lucky grabs in the history of photography. Yes, I realize you’re dead. Nonetheless, with all girlish respect, might I say that I think you’re hot?

Yours, blushingly,

The Author


Can there be anyone yet unfamiliar with the beguiling Vivian Maier, nanny-photographer for the ages? So often now has her story been circulated — especially among the lattelapping, Salon-surfing, NPR-listening crowd — that it might seem unlikely. But here’s a quick refresh anyway — not so much for the benefit of stragglers but for those (myself included) infatuated with the lady in what will no doubt be called an unnatural if not prurient Humbertina Humbert–like fashion. Expel from your mind any lingering images of the chewing gum, short shorts, and 1950s pink lipstick of the original Lolita, vulgar Dolores Haze. Welcome instead lanky Miss Maier, a camera-lugging Lo — serious, shy, yet seductive still, in ginormous clodhoppers and draggled old-maid skirts.

“Self-portrait, May 5, 1955.” All photographs © Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York City

“Self-portrait, May 5, 1955.” All photographs © Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York City

Indeed, get yourself up to date: it’s 2007. John Maloof, a twenty-something Chicago collector and urban-history buff, buys several boxes, contents unknown, at an auction of items left unclaimed at a local self-storage company. The boxes, for which he pays less than $400, turn out to hold roughly 30,000 negatives, some prints, and innumerable rolls of undeveloped film. Maloof finds that most of the images are candid shots or close-ups of people on the streets of Chicago, New York, Miami, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and elsewhere, taken between the 1950s and the 1980s. The subjects are marvelously diverse: working men, cops, squalling babies, querulous society matrons, African Americans (many), newspaper vendors, suburban kids, middle-class lady shoppers, bathers in Lake Michigan, and a fairly pungent assortment of the poor, the drunk, and the deadbeat. There are also pictures of animals (alive and as roadkill), fallen leaves, ownerless shoes, homemade signs, leaking fire hydrants, junk abandoned at curbside. And there are a number, too, of what appear to be self-portraits, artfully framed using mirrors, plate-glass windows, and other reflective surfaces. These show a tall, strange-looking, crane-like lady of indeterminate age. Sometimes we see her shadow only. The photographer isn’t making the usual hobbyist’s gaffe here; the silhouette is the subject — part of a stringently composed (and stark) visual allegory.

Though not a photo historian, Maloof realizes the importance of his find and buys up negatives and film rolls acquired by another collector at the original auction. (He will ultimately own about 100,000 images, plus great wodges of Maier memorabilia; Jeffrey Goldstein, Maloof’s main rival in the Maier-print-selling business, owns around 17,500.) After some research Maloof identifies the mysterious woman as Maier, a reclusive French American who worked for most of her life as a live-in nanny for various prosperous families in New York and Chicago. (In a poignant twist, the eighty-one-year-old Maier is still alive and living by herself in a grotty Chicago flat at the time Maloof acquires her negatives, but he doesn’t find this out until he sees a short newspaper obituary after her death in 2009. Like Henry Darger, her fellow Chicago outsider artist, Maier died not knowing that anyone would ever see her life’s work.)

As soon as Maloof puts her images online, Maier’s story goes viral. Astonishment builds. Journalists around the world hail “the best street photographer you’ve never heard of”; she is compared with Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Weegee, Garry Winogrand, Richard Avedon. Living-master shutterbugs — Mary Ellen Mark and Joel Meyerowitz among them — weigh in on her stunning shot-framing ability, her perfect timing, and her commanding apprehension of urban space and its denizens. The art world is likewise abuzz: after two exhibitions of Maier’s work in New York in 2012, Roberta Smith, the Times art critic, declares her a virtual shoo-in for “the pantheon of great 20th-century street photographers.”

New biographical details emerge. The French background is clarified: though born in New York in 1926 — to a French domestic servant and an Austrian-immigrant father (he left when Maier was still an infant) — the photographer spent her early years with her mother in Saint-Julien-en-Champsaur, the mother’s ancestral village in the French Alps. Maier returned to New York in 1938 as an adolescent and lived there — apart from several return visits to France — into her twenties. No one knows how she acquired her camera skills.

Clockwise from top right: “Grenoble, France, 1959”; “New York, NY”; “New York, NY, May 1953”; “New York, NY”

Clockwise from top right: “Grenoble, France, 1959”; “New York, NY”; “New York, NY, May 1953”; “New York, NY”

By the mid-1950s, Maier was working as a nanny in Chicago. Various former charges, now middle-aged adults, remember her fondly enough: in Jill Nicholls’s BBC documentary, Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures? (2013), and Maloof’s film, Finding Vivian Maier (2014), several reminisce about her in positive but frank terms. Everyone recalls the old-world formality, the peculiar Franco-American accent (some thought it faked), the absence of friends or family, the paranoid obsession with privacy (in none of the family homes in which she lived and worked would Maier let anyone enter her room), the forcible, usually left-leaning political opinions, and the irascible, sometimes violent, temper. One female interviewee describes her, somewhat enigmatically, as “abusive.” Some say she was mean. Others found her calm, likable, and even inspiring in her irritable, oddball way.

What’s most baffling, of course, is that Maier never shared her photography habit with anyone. None of her employers seem to have noticed the picture-taking monomania, or the hundreds of boxes of film squirreled away in her shut-to-the-world living quarters. The children were half-aware: Maier shot even while pushing kids around in strollers to playgrounds, parks, and more far-flung places of interest. (Maier often showed her little charges Skid Row and the dodgier parts of town; she took one girl to the stockyards to see the abattoir in operation.) If indeed an outsider artist of some sort, Maier was very much an insider too: possessed of a spooky, secret-agent-like deep cover.

Alas, Maier’s lifelong furtiveness — she died intestate, without friend or kin to organize her confusing affairs — has had at least one grim consequence: the small nuclear war that has erupted over the rights to her images. (“The Vivian Mire,” one critic calls it.) Millions of dollars may be at stake, and the legal complications — involving convoluted estate laws in both France and the United States — are bewildering. Maloof has been printing and selling Maier’s works through a New York gallery for thousands of dollars each, but a recent claimant, purportedly Maier’s closest living French relation, vehemently contests his right to do so. Given that the court battles might go on for years, as the New York Times recently reported, Maier’s photographs may soon be embargoed and withdrawn from public view until the mess is clarified.

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