"I am a spy", was Vivian Maier response, according to a man, a linguist, who knew her, as reported in John Maloof's cinematic quest of the person behind the myth, behind the urban legend that she has become.
Not long ago, a fellow photographer whom I had not seen for about twenty years, we paced the streets of Hull, sometimes together, during the late 1970s, came to me with
"Vivian Maier was like one of us",
the implication being that we have still to be discovered. I suspect that he is not the only one thinking that. Perhaps that is one of the factors fuelling her popularity. Yet, was she? This man, now retired, was an outreach and lecturer in photography, while I am an amateur with some local notoriety, with a couple of solo and several group and open exhibitions behind me. On our age there is the web, with that myriad of blogs, sites, dedicated to street photography. My eyebrows were raised.
Maloof's film is as much as about our reactions to her photography as it is about her, the initial scenes with the camera panning from blank face to blank face, people who mostly knew her as a nanny, or a woman who rented her storage space, getting a V Smith when she pressed her for a name.
The linguist did not understand, and looks like that he still cannot understand, why she called herself a spy. Maloof does not elaborate in the subject, perhaps because of his desire to present facts as he managed to uncover, and see, them, letting us to interpret, and judge. Yet she, to my eyes, said as it is. Aren't we, strange creatures trawling the streets day after day with a camera in one hand, a thick skin on the other, spies of our humanity, of our, using that well known expression, human condition?
"A nanny! What is a nanny doing taking photographs?", was another common response of those interviewed. As if photographers take photographs, nannies take care of children, photographers do not take care of children, nannies do not take photographs, a box like mindset that characterises our increasingly specialized societies. The responses of the cultural establishment approached, such as MoMA and Tate Modern, falls in a similar slot. There is a too mummified view of culture, of the arts, too often. All this continuing debate about is photography an art form, what defines a street photograph, who cares about it? I do not.
Yet, her work has become a favourite of not only so many fellow photographers, but of the public too. Is that because we see her as seeing the world as we do, from down the excitement, the comedy and tragedy, and, sometimes, the dangers, of the pavement, and not from a pedestal, that pedestal promoted by the art galleries? Matthew D'Ancona, on a completely different subject, mentions in an article for The Guardian that we, human beings, are complex creatures with often contradictory, and conflicting, thoughts, feelings, emotions. Does not her photography reveals that complexity, as the work of so many so called street photographers do? I had had comments on a similar vein about my own work. People such as her went out and made an image of the world as she saw it, as she understood it, as she felt about it. Naive she was not, living in Chicago, or New York, access to galleries, to contemporary photography, was always at her reach. Her mother had a camera, too. She explored under the skin of the world outside, and around, her.
One of the photographs that Maloof dug out of her as a child lingers, still, on my mind, a child with inquisitive eyes, unflinching in her directness to the camera, to the person behind it, as if she wanted to be that person. It reminds me of my own initial interest in photography, back in the 1970s, not of my fatigued feel of four decades later, of my desire to penetrate under the skin of a society, of lives, of people, who were alien to me, who are still alien to me, who always will be alien to me, yet I still continue in my quest. Is it not what photography, street and documentary photography, is about?
The picture of Vivian Maier that Maloof paints to us is that of a complex human being, with conflicting emotions, with a compassionate and non judgemental eye, yet with a dark side, a lone person, the daughter of French immigrants (at least, her mother was), who, probably, suffered a traumatic experience in her youth that marked her outlook and mindset, who was not interested in the drapes of success, who looked down on her employers, yet who yearned for some kind of recognition, of acceptance, in spite that she just did not fit in it, as one of her former employers brutally mentioned. A person who had the freedom of an outsider, without the ties and prescribed behavioural, social and cultural moulds of those inside a culture, a society, a person who basked in that position. Her photography has a kind of longing feel, a desire to be in, and out, of what she was photographing. That is what makes it be so endearing for me.
She was, more or less, of my mother age. The world she portrays has so many similarities with my own family photo albums, to even my own experiences as a kid.