Everyday drama

By the early 1980s Vivian Maier, who began taking photographs in 1950, was spending most of the money she earned as a nanny in Chicago on renting storage units to house her four, or possibly eight, tons of papers and photographic materials. As a nanny in other people’s homes she never had much space; On the other hand, the job lent itself well to her passion for photography. With a camera round her neck and a child or two in tow, she hit the streets: children needed exercise and the observation of everyday life was surely educative for them as well as fascinating to her.

Maier always had a camera round her neck. It appears in the many self-portraits she took, functioning like the palette or paintbrush of women artists in earlier eras – the sign of professional identity. To the question “Should she be regarded as a nanny or a photographer?”, the answer is plain: she was both. What she felt about either remains a mystery.

Vivian Maier: Anthology at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes is not the first exhibition of Maier’s work in England, but it is safe to say she isn’t well known here. It would be easy, following the title of a recent book, Vivian Maier Developed: The untold story of the photographer nanny by Ann Marks, to suggest that her story hasn’t been told; except that, after an exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2011, her story was so much told, had become such big business, that by 2017 Pamela Bannos, in Vivian Maier: A photographer’s life and afterlife, felt she had to write “a corrective” to the public depiction of Maier.

The public had become captivated by the photographs and by their accidental discovery; they were intrigued by the idea of ​​a reclusive “photographer nanny”. A mythology of absence flowered from the “enigma” or “riddle” at the heart of the story: Maier had built a portfolio of hundreds of thousands of pictures and had not sought to exhibit them. Not only that, she had ceased even developing them. Her shaping eye was not involved in the print. Words such as “secretive”, “mysterious”, “hidden”, “fixation”, clustered around her name and there was a suggestion that her mastery of street photography was “inadvertent”. “There are many ways to get the wrong picture of Vivian Maier”, Bannos declared. Her Maier was “a visionary artist” who cared about all aspects of her craft.

Maier stopped taking photographs in the 1990s and some time after that ceased paying the rental on the storage units. In 2007, two years before her death, the contents were auctioned off in randomly disposed lots. A young man called John Maloof, who was writing a history of the neighborhood, bought a sample blind; mostly boxes and boxes of rolls of film. After developing some he had the sense to see he had purchased work of quality. He chose some prints to put on Flickr. Mayer went viral.

Scouffles about ownership followed. Maier had no known heir, so it was not clear who should profit from the public’s desire to buy prints, and artistically it was unclear who should be credited, since Maier had made no decisions beyond composing the picture and clicking. In 2013 Maloof, a little bruised and a lot richer, made an interesting documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, which was nominated for an Oscar and can be seen on streaming services. It was trailed at the time, borrowing a line from Churchill, as “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.

Anne Morin’s selection in five spacious rooms at the MK Gallery is alert to the myth-making and designed to give us a range of options for making up our minds. You can hear Maier’s voice on audio tapes made with some of the children she nanned and you see her in her self-portraits. She sounds and looks confident and assured, amused and amusing. Generally, for the self-portraits, she’s standing square on in front of a mirror or window, unsmiling, the camera held at waist height. At first she used a Rolleiflex with a viewfinder you looked down into, which was ideal for street photography. She sought scenes of everyday life, but she also hunted out drama. She might follow the police. She photographed the destitute, the quarrelsome, the injured. Some prints show the moment people apparently noticed what she was doing; in some she was clearly intrusive; in 1966 she was arrested for disorderly conduct after illegally entering and photographing the murder scene and funeral of a senator’s daughter.

Maier was interested in workers’ rights and social justice for African-Americans, and she was easy with children but the pictures convey no sense of a cause. Nor did she go out looking for a specific subject matter or peculiar-looking people. (One photo alone suggests the influence of Diane Arbus.) Her passion was to witness and capture moments. The process of shaping the image, the achievement of compositional clarity, seems to have been what drove her. As one caption notes, she prioritized getting her picture over concerns about privacy or consent. In this she was of her time; And perhaps she was ahead of her time in resembling those of us who take snaps in a routine way on our phones and only glance at them afterwards. She would surely have flourished in a social media age.

It’s an absorbing exhibition, and none of the pictures is a dud, though we don’t know what Maier might have selected. Her wit is most evident in the self-portraits, as if she felt free to experiment on herself. She is smiling in the posed self-portrait of 1954, in which her image is seen in a sheet of mirror being lifted from a skip; the same sense of mischief informs the shot of her full-length shadow overlaid on a poster for the film Heaven Can Wait (a romantic comedy). There are lots of shadow-selves; the funniest shows her head and shoulder silhouetted against a construction worker’s hefty concrete-encrusted denim rear beside an orange fire hydrant. I understand why the exhibition ends with the picture of her trademark large coat and wide-brimmed hat laid on a deck with no person inside, but it’s the wrong message. Vivian Maier’s artistry and her distinctive idiom form a strong presence, not an absence.

Norma Clarkis Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Kingston University. Her most recent book is a family memoir,Not Speaking2019

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