22 January 2015

Vivian Maier: An Historical Conundrum

Tonight I attended a talk on the extensive work of the photographer Vivian Maier led by the independent scholar Richard Cahan, and after hearing him speak casually about his work on Maier's collection, I left full of questions and maybe a little bit miffed. To preface my critique of his work, and the handling of Maier's photographs, I will say that I walked into his talk excited to hear what insights he could share, having recently viewed the Vivian Maier's Chicago exhibition he co-curated at the Chicago History Museum. But also, I entered the discussion having just left my course on Public Engagement in Museums, eager to hear how a woman so private, who has been posthumously catapulted into a very public light, might be spoken about by one of the people who brought her to the public, and stands to benefit from her legacy of cultural production.

My interest in Maier began as it did with many others - through John Maloof's 2014 documentary Finding Vivian Maier. It was midway through his film that I recalled having seen an exhibition of this never-before-seen street photographer at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2012, thinking why have I never heard of her before? And what amazing photos! I scratch my head at the thought of passively enjoying her photographs, both in color and black and white, but that she remained an enigma, a passing fancy, just another photographer I enjoyed. It wasn't until Maloof's documentary shed light on how her photographs came to the public, that her work caught the attention of the masses - at least that was my take on the way the events unfolded.

Via Charlotte Film Lab
Tonight's talk led me to other avenues of critical inquiry.

I began to understand the timeline of her collection leaving her possession and entering the hands of complete strangers. In 2007, Maier had three storage lockers, which were subsequently auctioned off through the Norwood Park based auction agency RPN. Maier passed away in 2009. She was still alive, and was still the rightful owner of these lockers and the items inside of them. But she had missed a payment. Her possessions were disseminated between three or four people who bid on her lockers.

From my understanding, the people who bid on her items were all white men, who all had the ability to bid on her collection. Whether that be through having the leisure time to peruse auctions of this nature, or the spare funds to purchase said collections. There's something both entitled and predatory about the fact that her collection of hats, clothes, writings, negatives, photographs, and other items fell into the hands of complete strangers. Strangers, some of whom threw away her letters and writings, who auctioned off her hats, who began to sell her negatives on Ebay. These acts effectively whittled away the integrity of her unified collection, as well as problematically took away from a person who might not have been in a state to financially support her storage locker fees. I can't help but wonder if she even knew her lockers were sold off, or how her life might have been if she had seen any of the financial benefits that resulted from the unveiling of her "treasure trove" of photographs.

Via the New York Times
I am critical of the purchasing and disseminating of her "things," for lack of a better word, because she was alive when this happened. Yet for reasons unbeknownst to me or those who purchased her items, she was unable to maintain the keeping of the storage spaces. Maloof's documentary touches on the issue of Maier's financial strains, and for that inclusion, I applaud him. His documentary also focused deeply on her profession as a nanny - a domestic worker who, when we piece together the timeline, lived in 18 different homes in the span of 20 years.

Hearing Cahan speak about Maier's life as a nanny, using stereotypical descriptors likening her to Mary Poppins left me considering the conditions of a solitary, domestic worker, supporting herself and her art solely on the dime of the families who employed (and disemployed) her. I considered my own interest in issues of domestic labor today, of domestic workers' lack of representation in unions, and their lack of rights, often working without clear contracts or boundaries which enable them to move autonomously, take vacation, and enjoy the benefits that many of us take for granted. I think about how she shuffled from family to family, continually having to adapt to their whims and rules, potentially working as a nanny because it meant she would always have a roof over her head and food on the table.

And then I think about what happened to Maier when the employment dried up. How isolated and alone she was. Without a family of her own or a support network to fortify her in a time of need. I think about the words used to describe her, and I shudder.

Eccentric, unusual, birdlady, odd, substantial, isolated, loner, strange.

Via Kottke.org
My issues with the talk tonight are extensive, but at the heart of my frustration was the fact that Cahan didn't attempt to incorporate her gender or poverty into the conversation of who she was and how being a woman of a certain socioeconomic status had an impact on her work. Or at the very least, what happened to her work after it left those lockers and fell into the hands of strangers. It seems a bit ironic that her work, work she chose to keep so private, work that depicts a world of strangers, should become entrusted to strangers. Strangers who, from what I can tell, were not museum workers, domestic workers, conservators, or art historians.

I grapple with the intentions of those who gambled and purchased the immense collection of objects from her lockers. I wonder what it was that put them in the auction-house to begin with. What were their motivators? Curiosity? Treasure hunting? Hoping to stumble upon the next "big thing?" It's the questioning of the underlying motivators of those who have given us this great gift of Maier's work, but who are also benefiting and profiting from her labor. Why did she have to die alone, unrecognized, and misunderstood? Why was she impoverished? What failings of our society and lack of community left her cast off as an outsider, barely scraping by? In terms of her work, who's duty is it to share her photographs with the world? And are those who are recreating her history, applying their own narratives to her story doing her justice? Should there be a feminist perspective placed on her work? Should we even be looking at her work, or was it meant to be kept private? And finally, is there a fiscal responsibility upon those who are profiting from her work?

Via the New York Times
While I don't have the answers to these questions, I'm bowled over by her work.  There is something that leaves me breathless as I stand before her photographs. Knowing that there are well over 100,000 images to be seen, many of which were taken in and around Chicago, it's hard not to want to see all of them. As a Chicagoan, these images are a reflection of my city. It's impossible not to hope to stumble upon a photo that might be me, or my parents, or a friend, or a landmark that I relate to. I spent much of my childhood in Rogers Park, could I have seen her? Could she have seen me?

One of the great and perplexing tropes in art is the presence of the mirror, and Maier to a certain extent was a mirror. She mirrored reality, or at least a reality that she constructed through her photography. Reflections and mirrors appear throughout her work. Psychologically, when we see a mirror in art, we look for ourselves. It could be in Las Meninas, a Jeff Wall photograph, or in one of Joan Jonas' performances. The desire to see oneself in art is almost a primal urge. And reflections play deeply into our fascination with Maier's work.  For Chicagoans, reflected in her work is the city we see ourselves in every day. When we look at her photographs we see ourselves both in the reflective nature of the glass frame, and in the millisecond of the moment she captured, kept, protected, and honed. We attend her shows, grasping if anything for a glimsp of ourselves, reflected in the quiet mystery of her prolific yet completely private career.

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