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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Recommended Viewing: Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

Caught the documentary Finding Vivian Maier yesterday and absolutely loved it. The film raises interesting questions about just how much we know, or make an effort to know, about other people. Vivian Maier (1926 - 2009) took amazing photos during her lifetime, but she never shared her work. The documentary traces the discovery of her film and the subsequent search to find more information about Maier, who spent her working years as a nanny for various families. The central question the filmmaker presents is, why didn't this extraordinary talent show the world her art?

This central question is, of course, entirely conventional and learning about Maier's life is very interesting. However, it is also fascinating to look at and consider the perspective of the filmmaker - John Maloof, who discovered Maier's material in a box he purchased at an auction - as well as that of the people he interviews who knew Maier. The perspectives they bring make for interesting reflections on the culture at large and how people who don't fit conventional norms are viewed. Rose Lichter-Marck wrote an excellent New Yorker article that gets at that point:

There’s no disputing that Maier was peculiar and prickly, and that her interests spanned the benign and the morbid. But she was neither a Mary Poppins nor a surrogate Mommie Dearest. The people who knew her described an impenetrability that, even in retrospect, threatens the fantasy that people who choose to care for children are all hugs and rainbows. Her story suggests the unsympathetic possibility that a woman might choose something like nannying because it has an economic rather than emotional utility.

As Janet Malcolm writes in her A House of One’s Own,“Every character in a biography contains within himself or herself the potential for a reverse image.” So let’s consider “Finding Vivian Maier” in reverse:

Maier challenges our ideas of how a person, an artist, and, especially, a woman should be. She didn’t try to use her work to accumulate cultural or economic capital. She was poor but uninterested in money: when Maloof went through her possessions, he found thousands of dollars in uncashed Social Security checks. She didn’t marry or have children, and, when people mistakenly called her Mrs. Maier, she would reply, "Miss Maier, and I’m proud of it" echoing another female artist, who often instructed strangers not to call her “Mrs. Stieglitz” but “Miss O’Keeffe.” She died before developing more than a thousand rolls of exposed film, and there is no proof that she ever made a concerted effort to show her work to any dealers or other artists. To suggest that her choices were the result of some as yet uncovered emotional trauma is to assume that her life was lived in reaction to pain. But this shoehorns her into the very conventions of capitalism and bourgeois values that she eschewed so aggressively.
Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women, Rose Lichter-Marck, The New Yorker (May 9, 2014)(edited for formatting).

As Lichter-Marck states, "Maier had neither money nor connections, but she had control over how she lived, what she looked at, and what she photographed." Maier had her freedom.

Vivian Maier lived her life on her own terms, something that is not easy to do. And that is what makes the documentary fascinating.


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