Monday, November 9, 2015

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: A Secret Master Artist Among Us

Vivian Maier, until very recently, was known primarily to a
few hundred persons at most anywhere, and they all thought
she was only an eccentric nanny who obsessively shot
casual photographs.

Now, only a few  years after her death, Ms. Maier, is being
acknowledged as one of the master photography artists of
the 20th century.

In a documentary film (“Finding Vivian Maier” available on
DVD)) made by the amateur historian, John Maloof,  who
accidentally unearthed her never-exhibited life work of
photographs and films, Vivian Maier comes out of the
hidden shadowy facades of her day-to-day life, and into
focus as an artist-hero living secretly among us as if she
were a kind of aesthetic Superman or Batman or

She did not have, of course, miraculous powers of flight,
hyperstrength or x-ray vision. But like the aforementioned
superheroes and their ilk, she lived quietly and unnoticed
among us until she did “her thing” almost hidden from public
view. She once described herself as “a sort of spy.”

“Her thing” was a major life work of photographic images and
portraits of urban “street” life in the middle-to-late 20th
century, and although she did not ever show her work publicly,
nor was ever recognized in her lifetime, she was an obvious
genius with the camera.

As pointed out in the film, she still is not fully recognized by the
art photography establishment, but many of our contemporary
photography masters do acknowledge her, and the galleries and
museums which now have exhibited her work report record
crowds and intense interest by the general public.

For a long time, the cliche image of the artist be they a painter,
a sculptor, a poet, a novelist, a composer, a performing musician,
a dancer, a choreographer, or (of the newest arts) a photographer
or a filmmaker, has been one of very public eccentricity, visibly
romantic self-display and self-promotion. Almost every artist,
however long or short their life and creative period, produces a
body of work. Usually they strive for recognition, approval and
fame. A few are notably private, especially about their personal
lives --- the writer Samuel Beckett comes to mind --- and some
refuse prizes and awards, but almost always, artists strive to have
their work recognized in some way. Vivian Maier is the exception,
perhaps, that verifies this rule. She was a very secret genius, an
enigmatic hoarder who stored away thousands of her own
negatives, undeveloped rolls, and reels of films --- her entire body
of artistic work.

Her daily life was preoccupied with watching over other person’s
children. She was truly a full-time “nanny.”

Hers is so unlikely a story you couldn’t make it up. But the story
itself is irrefutable. We have the photographs, the 8 millimeter
films, and the oral tapes she made, as well as the consistent
testimonies of those who did know her personally.  She was born
in the U.S., but she affected a contrived French accent. She
hoarded small objects she found. She did not marry, and had no
children of her own. There is no evidence at all that she had any
typical kind of social life. No boyfriends or girlfriends. She was a
classical loner. And yet her work exudes a profound sympathy
and sensitivity for modern human urban life, with its darkness,
its humor and its tenderness, and the many anonymous human
beings who compose it ever day.

What we pass by every day, and fail to notice, Vivian Maier saw
and stopped to record. It’s quite a story after all.

Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment