Vivian Maier’s secret dust of art and grit was part gunpowder. Lying dormant, it was nothing, but when it got kicked around it lit up the world. Her work also caused legal complications, dueling documentaries, a host of questions about Vivian’s intent and desires, and a lot of talk about her difficult personality. Her identity and her story got packaged as a mystery tale. As her photographs gained fame, Vivian herself garnered intrigue. The more we scrutinize Vivian, the longer we stare into ourselves.
One of the reasons her life is interesting to us at all is because her photographs are so stunning that they pull us into worlds we want to know more about. In this new age where we all have both cameras and photography publishing platforms glued to our hands, we all feel a bit like Vivian, trying to snap interesting selfies, people-watching on the street. What was odd in her time is a given today, but she still stands out, not just for the historical relevance, but because she just had an eye for things. A self-described spy, a hoarder who freaked out over losing a newspaper, she seemed to be grabbing at the transient with her cameras, sneaking the world in a way she knew how, in a way that probably made her feel better sometimes.
To take photos is to try to obtain the unobtainable. Their uncanny stillness can hold us transfixed, a way to suspend a moment in our consciousness in a way that it was never held in real time to begin with. Vivian only printed a small handful of her photographs, meaning that she never got to see what we’ve seen of her work. What she captured became more of a mystery to her than to us.
The Oscar nominated film Finding Vivian Maier by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel interviews many of the children Vivian looked after, who crafted a vision of her as an eccentric, sometimes scary woman. She comes off as a paranoid hoarder, obsessed with crime headlines, brimming with disgust for humanity. But that’s not the full story of Vivian. Just by looking at her photos you can see that she wasn’t all snakes and curses, she was in love with the world, too. A 2013 BBC documentary shed a bit more light on Vivian’s demeanor and interests. While the Maloof documentary focuses on her suspect French accent, her odd, sometimes cruel, behavior, and a recording of herself calling herself mysterious, Pamela Bannos posits in The Vivian Maier Mystery that she’s actually not very mysterious at all. The Maloof documentary does seem a bit too keen to focus on her hermit behavior and her untreated mental illness. She fits neatly into the cliche of a reclusive, tortured artist, and building up that myth seems to be more the point of the documentary that truly “finding” Vivian.
But, what can anyone do but try to construct her based on what she left behind. It’s what we all are left to do with the puzzle pieces other people pour out for us. There are always missing pieces, often left out on purpose, or just waywardly discarded, but the puzzle of a person doesn’t have a set solution to come to. We fit the pieces together however we can, cramming ones together that almost fit, often trying to recreate an image already outlined in our mind.
“The poor are too poor to die,” Vivian is quoted as saying when someone suggested that she see a doctor. We question why she didn’t try to promote herself, to show people her work. We wonder why, with her degree of talent, she wasn’t using her nanny employment as just a side game, while she chipped away at a dream to earn a living as a photographer. Part of that answer may be that she simply didn’t harbor those striving “American” dreams in the way most of us do. I’ve been that person, working jobs I hated, scribbling when I could find the time, hoping for something else. It’s hard for me to imagine how Vivian didn’t have that same swell in her heart, but she was born in France to a long line of servants. Her idea of place and class was surely different than most of ours. Even if it’s mostly an illusion, we still cling to the exceptions we see in class mobility. We are taught from a young age that there are glittering possible things for us. Maybe Vivian just didn’t have her head filled up with those things.
Whatever she was filled up with, she spilled enough of it over to enrich us, even if it did happen by accident. Right now her work is caught in a legal tangle that may close the doors on her exhibitions and print sales until the courts can figure out who owns Vivian Maier’s work. In the meantime, popular culture has been given the gift of rifling through her images, hearing snatches of her stories, and that’s not a kind of wealth that can be paid back.