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A Brie Grows in Brooklyn

"Mabel's not crazy... she's unusual."

Icon Of The Week: Vivian Maier

In 2007, a caché of 30,000 negatives was found in an abandoned storage unit. A young man, John Maloof, bought them for $400 at an auction, and started developing them. He was 26 years old, and he was a real estate developer in Chicago.

Not knowing if the photographs were anything special, he began posting them on Flickr, where they received an enormously popular response. Whoever had taken them became an insta-Internet-celebrity. It was a digital love story trawled from an analog time.

Maloof looked back through the archive he had purchased for clues about who the photographer might have been. He found an envelope with the name “Vivian Maier” scrawled on the back. He did his due diligence, but couldn’t find the lass to match the name. Then, one day, he saw an obituary in The Chicago Tribune, for Vivian Maier, who had died three days earlier in a nursing home, at the age of 83.

Hence, Maloof found his photographer and lost her in a single snap of newsprint.

Vivian Maier was born in New York in 1926, but reportedly grew up in France. At the age of 25, she returned back to the city of her birth, where she worked in sweat shops for a while until she made her way to Chicago.

For forty years, she worked as a nanny in the Windy City. The details of her upbringing are so sketchy that even the children she raised can’t pinpoint many of her biographical details. Many people refer to her as the “Mary Poppins of the North Side,” given that when she’d interview for a job, she’d appear in a flash from a Rolleiflex camera, and then disappear into the ether when her wards became truly well behaved human beings. 

According to those who knew her, she was: “She was a Socialist, a Feminist, a movie critic, and a tell-it-like-it-is type of person. She learned English by going to theaters, which she loved. She wore a men’s jacket, men’s shoes and a large hat most of the time. She was constantly taking pictures, which she didn’t show anyone.”

According to one family, for which Maier worked for 17 years, she never received or made a single phone call for the entirety of her tenure in the household.

Vivian spent most of her free time wandering around the streets, taking photographs a la Weegee or Eugene Atget. Every time she moved to a new position, she would bring boxes full of negatives, newspaper clippings, and audio recordings of some of the subjects she had photographed. At one employers house, she left behind 200 boxes.

During a brief time in the 1970s, she looked after Phil Donahue’s children. I don’t know why her stint there didn’t last, but given that Phil was Irish Catholic, like my parents, I can only assume that shit was insane in that household. My mother personally never held onto a nanny for us for more than 3 months. More than one, in fact, volunteered to deport herself.  

Vivian seems like she must have been a real character and a free spirit. Between 1959 and 1960, she traveled alone to Los Angeles, Manila, Bangkok, Beijing, Egypt, Italy and the American Southwest. She never married or had any children.

At the end of her life, she may have been homeless in Chicago. According to sources like the BBC and Wikipedia, the children whom she raised in the early 1950s bought her an apartment, and took her off the street, where she lived on Social Security checks. In 2008, she slipped on a patch of ice, an accident from which she never recovered. In April, 2009, she passed away in a nursing home.

She left nothing behind but her photographs. 

If I’m being romantic, then I picture Vivian as the Bill Cunningham of Chicago, only rather than taking photographs of the rare birds of society, she focussed on the hungry, the tired, the poor. They seem to have shared the same obsessions. The capturing and the cataloging. The distance the lens affords.

When I first started writing for Interview magazine, I used to photograph at events. After years of attending them as a rare bird in Forever 21 frocks, it was a relief not to have to speak to anyone. To stand back, and observe. To be present, but not have to participate. That’s my preferred mode of being.

As it must have been for Vivian, who took a curious number of self-portraits by photographing her own reflection in windows.

Today, we need to understand ourselves through images. We exist more online—on Facebook, on Tumblr, in posted pictures and Google searches—than we do in the physical world. It’s no longer enough to look down at our own bodies, or at our reflections in mirrors, because it doesn’t give us complete information about WHO we are, or how most of the people we interact with perceive us.

So we stand in front of mirrors, hold our iPhones next to our faces, and take pictures of ourselves standing there, posing. Then we post those self reverential, deeply insecure images online. It’s a method of controlling our image, really, but also of discovering what we look like in a space that doesn’t exist, that we cannot feel, that we cannot touch, that we cannot smell or hear. 

It’s really weird that Vivian was doing that in the analog age. But she must have felt some of the same detachment from her physical self. She saw the world through the lens of the camera, and thus, could not understand her own self without seeing her physical body in a captured image. 

The only other photographer I can think of who did such a thing is Eugene Atget, who also wasn’t “discovered” until after his death, in the albums he left behind of deserted Parisian streets, mostly devoid of people. He too, famously shot an image of himself in a store window.

It’s all pretty ghostly and surreal. A way of making yourself present as an apparition in a scene where life is occurring without you.

There also might be something to be said for Vivian’s timidity. She obviously felt comfortable around children, but also around minorities and the indigent, many of whom she captured head on. The “others” of society, with whom she must have felt some solidarity, or even superiority.

But most of her images depict people sleeping, or retreating with their backs to her, unaware of her existence. She didn’t feel bold enough to photograph people whom she didn’t know at close range—which, by the way, is incredibly difficult—and her inability to do so may be exactly what will prevent her from going down in history as a truly visionary photographer, a la Diane Arbus or Walker Evans. 

For you, Vivian. For the bidding war that has gone on over your negatives in the years since your death. For the current exhibition of your work at Steven Kasher Gallery, which is open until February 25. (Go check it out! Steven Kasher is really great.)

For the documentary that is being made about you and Maloof, which will be released at some point in 2012. For being something of a mystery, for your bizarre and awesome self portraits, for your solitude and freedom.

For you, Vivian Maier, you’re my Icon of the week.

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  1. danisdapper said: French Spy. It all makes sense.
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