There is a nearly overwhelming desire to begin this essay with “The problem with Vivian Maier” because in the six years since her death she has been mythologised as the mystery woman, the nanny photographer, an enigma, a social mis-fit and a problem that needs to be solved; this may not have been the original intent of her self-appointed curators but in this age of social media the original author rapidly loses control of the narrative.
When Maier failed to pay the rent on a storage locker where she had deposited a huge collection of prints, negatives, undeveloped films and other treasured items she initiated a chain of events that eventually resulted in a small fraction of her work becoming public whilst exposing every known facet of her life to public scrutiny and opening up her personality and life-style to the type of public scrutiny normally reserved for politicians and celebrities.
John Maloof, the flea market picker who acquired the bulk of her negatives and many of her personal belongings, is the self appointed high priest of the Mysterious Vivian Maier cult. In his film Finding Vivian Maier (1), Maloof runs with two parallel narratives, on the one hand he presents the socially ill-equipped children’s nanny who, and he is shocked by this idea, took thousands of excellent photographs and on the other hand we have the strong, clever, commercially savvy man, who, and he is not surprised by this, became an art critic and curator overnight. In Maloof’s presentation Maier is not just found but saved by Maloof; however the BBC’s Imagine production Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures (2) raises serious questions about how she is being described and the future of the Maier legacy.
There are many levels at which the BBC film is superior including a professional presenter in Alan Yentob and high production values but a clearer comparison can be made on the involvement of Joel Meyerowitz. In Maloof’s film we are treated to just a few minutes of Meyerowitz who tells us the photographs “look good”, that she had an “authentic eye” and “qualities of human understanding and warmth”; all reasonable comment but less than insightful. In the BBC film the same photographer appears several times and is given the time to build upon his aesthetic appreciation with an insight into the thought processes and techniques of an urban photographer, her social position in relation to her subjects and, tellingly, his frustration that we are only being shown a glimpse of her work as chosen by the people who brought the suitcases; “what kind of editors are they?” One cannot help but wonder whether similar comments were left on Maloof’s cutting room floor.
The Maloof film is promoted as documentary but should be interpreted as an advertisement for the business he has built on his ownership of over 100,000 Maier images (i); Maloof positions himself as a historian adopting a journalistic style that appropriates the ethics of that profession. Pamela Bannos (4), a photography professor at Northwest University who is researching Maier for a book of her own, has published a list of inaccuracies in Maloof’s film. She is concerned that Maloof has established himself as the “official” online presence of Vivian Maier, encouraging his audience to believe that he speaks on her behalf as the trustee of her legacy, creating what Bannos calls an “illusion of definitive authority” and failing to recognise that at least a third of her work is in other collector’s hands.
The full list of inaccuracies can be found at Bannos’ website (4) but the fundamental issue from my perspective is that Maloof has presented anecdotal evidence of Maier’s physiological state in later life, she lived until the age of 83, alongside the photographs she took as a young women. This timeline distortion confuses the mindset of a mature and then elderly women with a young photographer and contributes to, if not creates, the myth of Maier as a life-long disturbed person. Bannos points out that her most celebrated work predates her death by fifty years.
There are other disturbing aspects of Maloof’s film; firstly that his self-image of being Maier’s saviour, the creator of her archive, ignores the visual evidence he presents of carefully organised boxes of negatives and other material; Maier had obviously diligently organised and stored her work. The second, and more disturbing point, that Bannos picks up in an interview with Spolia Magazine (5), is that he lays out and films her shoes, clothes and personal effects in a way that is not only invasive but strengthens the argument that he is creating a cult figure.
The BBC film is quite different in tone and approach. Jill Nicholls, the Director, in an article for BBC Arts (8), quotes Michael Williams as saying “Everything that we can learn about her is going to come from the pictures. We really are just left with the images.” Whether Nicholls specifically had this idea in her mind when she made the film is not clear but it is obvious that her intent was to primarily review Maier as an artist. Vivian Maier’s photographs will always be considered in the context of her lifestyle and the discovery story and this narrative forms the skeleton of the BBC film but Nicholls and Yentob have used this as a entry point to her work rather than the whole story. There are informative contributions from Joel Meyerowitz, Pamela Bannos and Ron Slattery (ii) which shed light on Maier’s photographic approach and switch the focus from the women to the photographer and the photographs.
With Bannos’ help the film also dispels the idea that Maier was a self taught photographer, isolated from the art world. Bannos shows a photograph of Salvador Dali taken on the steps of the MoMA and dated by 24th January 1952. From December 1951 until February 1952 the MoMA ran an exhibition of “Journalist Photography from France to be shown in Five French Photographers” (6). It is impossible to imagine that an avid photographer would have only visited the steps of the museum so we must assume that she was exposed to the work of Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Brassai, Ronis and Izis in 1952 and can only wonder whether Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of Asia partly inspired her eight month trip to Europe, Africa and Asia in 1959. We also know that she owned several, unfortunately unspecified, photo books and was a regular cinema goer and amateur film critic so the BBC film helps us to place her within the context of her contemporaries and a wider art world.
The most important contribution made by the BBC film is that it leaves us with a profile of a photographer who worked as a nanny, a fundamental reversal of Maloof’s discourse, and in doing so Nicholls underlines that the most important thing we need to know about Vivian Maier is that she was a photographer and an artist. Her gender, profession and social standing are all constituent parts of the artist and person but everything we need to know about her is embodied in her photographs.
Notes on Text
(i) Prints from the images owned by John Maloof are currently being sold for £2,100 a time in London (3) as well as in other galleries around the world. Whilst there appears to be no dispute over ownership as Maloof and others purchased the photographs when she was still alive there is an ongoing legal battle over their copyright. (7)
(ii) Ron Slattery is street and internet trader dealing in found photographs. He owns a large number of vintage and original Maier prints. He is a far more sympathetic character than Maloof who appears to be coopering with Pamela Bannos’ research. (9)
(1) Maloof, John (2104) Finding Vivian Maier. Produced, Written and Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Distributed by Soda Pictures.
(2) Nicholls, Jill (2013) Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures. Produced and Directed by Jill Nicholls for BBC Imagine, Presented by Alan Yentob. A BBC Arts Production
(3) Beetles and Huxley (2015) Vivian Maier (accessed at Beetles and Huxtley 28.7.15) – http://www.beetlesandhuxley.com/exhibitions/vivian-maier-2015.html
(4) Bannos, Pamela (2012 – 2015) Vivian Maier’s Fractured Archive (accessed at the Vivian Maier project 26.7.15) – http://vivianmaierproject.com
(5) Spolia Magazine (2014) An Interview with Pamela Bannos (accessed at Spolia Magazine 24.4.15) – http://www.spoliamag.com/an-interview-with-pamela-bannos/
(6) Museum of Modern Art (1951) Journalist Photography from France to be shown in Five French Photographers (Accessed at MoMA 26.4.15) – https://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/1573/releases/MOMA_1951_0091_1951-12-13_511213-77.pdf
(7) Kennedy, Randy (2014) The Heir’s Not Apparent: A legal Battle Over Vivian Maier’s Work. (accessed at The New York Times 28.7.15) – http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/06/arts/design/a-legal-battle-over-vivian-maiers-work.html
(8) Nicholls, Jill (2013) Vivian Maier: Lost Art of an Urban Photographer (accessed at BBC Arts 26.7.15) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/0/23007897
(9) Slattery, Ron (2015) Big Happy Fun House: Found Photos ( accessed at Big Happy Funhouse 28.7.15) – http://www.bighappyfunhouse.com