Vivian Maier is a street photographer who died completely unknown in 2009. She left behind an astonishing body of work. Estimates of how many images it contains are still vague. There may be as many as 150,000, most of them undeveloped when they came to light.
She was a hoarder, who spent much of her adult life working as a nanny and living in single rooms in other people’s houses, which she insisted should have secure locking arrangements and were found, on the rare occasions when anyone else gained entry, to be full of chest-high piles of newspapers, leaving paths between them for reaching bed, wardrobe, windows.
There is a riveting 84-minute film Finding Vivian Maier made by John Maloof, who stumbled across a few boxes of the pictures in a Chicago auction house when working on a local history topic about his neighbourhood and bid on a large box of negatives. He thought the photos might be useful for illustrating his research. They turned out not to be.
Maier was still alive at this point, as Maloof didn’t know. He put the pictures aside and forgot them. His interest was awakened again in 2010 and he began collecting further images and other remains, including audio-tapes of interviews with subjects of the pictures. Maloof’s wonderful short film is available at the moment on MUBI and tells the story as a kind of whodunnit, looking for all the people who knew Maier – her employers, her relatives in France, one of her friends (not a numerous class) and a sociologist who met her, I forget how. The film shrewdly delays telling the most startling and disturbing things about its subject till towards the end.
So this isn’t a subject where I have any deep familiarity. I’ve only been looking at the photographs for about two weeks. Of the hundred and fifty thousand, I have seen at most 200. I haven’t had time to understand this category ‘street photographer’, a fascinating one but new to me. So at last I have the type of subject I have been dreaming of, where I am truly in the dark. I think my method will be to put together a larger set of images than usual and let them speak for themselves, except for a few comments about why I find them interesting. Inevitably I am drawn to certain images and certain themes, and not others.
Pictures of people asleep are among my favourite Maiers. The display of magazines and newspapers makes a cosy room or a dragon’s cave, an over-communicative construction, turned inside out, and balanced between neatness and disorder.
Another homemade construction concealing a building site. It’s a subversive architectural moment, in which buildings are forced to reveal their backsides. The single overbearing car, oblivious strider and lamp post are a typically queasy, surreal group.
More sleepers, more obverse and reverse of a repeated motif. I love the grittiness of this and the perversity of the geometrical consistency imposed by the bench and the fence (and its shadow). A highly structured space, yet anything but. The subject does not end at the side-edges.
This priest-like ten-year-old is surrounded by fragments of architectural pretension. Is it waste ground or a graveyard? A metal stairway to where? The first of many impenetrable enigmas.
A father and two children walking away from us. A low wall dividing us from a ravine. A puddle creating a double Rorschach – a black snowflake in the centre of the picture that counteracts their forward motion, or rather multiplies the directions in which things move.
First self-portrait, first instance where we see the image being produced right this minute by her hand, in the painting which she has made of the portrait, as if the part she is responsible for can be isolated in the centre. The doll on the counter a weird touch, the light from the side another ghost.
A complex trick. It looks as of these figures are hanging from a ceiling which is below the floor in a no-space.
Another nap, or an accident? The house peering into the car window an uncanny touch.
Another nap, another far-away element lined up with the sleeper, an Oldsmobile across the street. All these sleepers – are they pictures of the unconscious?
Another self-portrait with an attendant looking at something else. The shops behind her are behind us, though in front. Mirrors are baffling, however long you’ve had to get used to them. Strange that the brushed metal makes their lower parts look as if we’re seeing them through a gauze curtain.
Looking down into another room below the floor. Something wonderful about the head-on view.
More mirror tricks, though I still want to think I’m seeing him through a glass door, his legs chopped off by it, but there on the other side. The label on the ‘door’, around which you see the sky, has less force if it’s stuck on a mirror. The two flaps on either side of the central scene are like wings on an altarpiece. The tiny corridor running on forever on the left is an insoluble mystery. The building with fire escapes on the rights fits perfectly until you look closely, then it doesn’t: light and shadow are in the wrong places.
Someone else building his private cave.
Emerging from the subway, a group of escaping captives.
One of the most incomprehensible, presumably made more confusing by how it is cropped. Is there glass any more in this large opening? The man’s foot seems to puncture it. If not, how explain the reflections of two cars in the tarp? Is the man, consisting entirely of shoes and sagging cuffs, just rolling up the tarp to begin selling the peaches from a stall, not a more permanent shop? The surrealest of all.
She sprawls on her front step and deploys the torn-out page like goddesses did scraps of cloth in their modesty.
A ferry docking, uncharacteristically atmospheric.
Self-portrait on a crooked slice of mirror which chops up the building behind.
A self-portrait which creates a circular or angular pavilion out of reflections and projections of walls and canopies.
A composite creature created by a fire hydrant.
Another car interior as a magically complex space in another stationary vehicle.
Another seller’s hut as a dense, complex space or cave. Colour used sparingly.
Again red/orange accents, searing here. A scene of mythical import.
How many people? They multiply.
It looks as if they are materialising a woman’s leg from a piece of mosquito net or spun sugar at a carnival – magic.
Depths of a sideways look, solitude in crowds, both near and far.
This one came after a series of colour pics and landed with unexpected solemnity.
Maier isn’t usually a minimalist—this one comes nearest.
What are they saying?
The most inscrutable of all.
Full of contrasts, a great composition.
Where’s Hoffa? The violence of it, perpetrated against paper.
Apparently the piles of newspapers in Maier’s room often featured lurid crimes, a passion of hers.
Sleeping news vendor whose shoe has mysteriously migrated.
An expression that holds you. The spare colour is gripping.
A found object.
As a way to convey movement. A realm of ghosts. Maier’s world is one of strange accidents which occur in the midst of life but stand apart from it. The outsider finds outsiderdom reflected back at her wherever she looks. She discovers loneliness in city streets, confirming in myriad ways what Baudelaire noticed all those years ago.
For my wife’s response to the Vivian Maier film, see www.esthermenell.com