One night in a small hotel in Flanders, exhausted after a long day of bike riding, I turned on the TV and began surfing channels. It was an act of desperation.
After a long day on a bike I was in a catatonic state. I had time on my hands that is until I could justify to myself crawling into bed and passing out. I was too tired to read my e-book and I didn’t want to look at the phone which I’d seen enough of that day thanks very much after getting lost and having to constantly check google maps.
Flemish TV looked pretty much like the same kind of rubbish as everywhere else: game shows (everyone laughing), soaps, ‘reality’ TV and blitz advertising.
Then it happened: on one channel, I saw a black and white photo on the screen – and it caught my attention immediately. It was a great photo – of homeless poor blacks somewhere in a big city in America. It was obviously taken some time in the past, late 1950’s/1960’s? was my guess.
Then came more black and white photos, equally as incredible. More scenes from an America from decades ago.
There I was, exhausted after a long bike ride, sitting in a hotel room surfing the TV and then suddenly found myself glued to the screen and wide awake.
Who took these photos?
I was about to find out. And her story was as incredible as her photos….
I had never heard of her.
Yet she had worked for many years, from the 1950’s until the late 1980’s.
She had taken thousands of photos.
As with any kind of art, tastes differ when it comes to photography.
What one person might consider brilliant, another person might dislike.
I had very definite ideas about photography and this was especially so with respect to black and white photography. In the past, I’d spent a lot of time in a dark room developing and printing black and white photos which I had taken during trips to India and China. I enlarged the photos and framed them and held exhibitions. During that time, I had looked at a lot of black and white photos taken by recognised ‘greats’ including Capa, Adams, Walker Evans, Man Ray, Cartier- Bresson and McCullin.
The one thing which remained from my years of immersion in the world of black and white photography was the simple conviction that a good black and white photograph has an artistic power which colour photography can never match.
And looking at the photos of Vivian Maier, I knew I was looking at a great black and white photographer.
How was it possible, I wondered, that I’d never heard of her and never seen any of her work during the time I was a black and white photography fanatic?
I turned the volume up and listened carefully to the Flemish (which is the same as Dutch, but is spoken with a very different accent).
In time, the explanation to this puzzle emerged.
It was as incredible as her photographs.
Vivian Maier never made any attempt to exhibit or publicise her work.
She took photos, lots and lots of them, and stored them away in suitcases.
Over the years, the suitcases piled up.
She knew that she was taking brilliant photos. Yet incredibly, she felt no need to win any kind of recognition.
I was flabbergasted at the very idea of it.
I wanted to know more about this extraordinary, unknown genius.
There was no chance I was going to change the channel.
The Flemish programme was based upon on an American documentary which was made years after Maier’s death (it can be downloaded from the net). It was based on interviews with people who had known her and or at least, observed her from close-up. She had few friends and wasn’t motivated to make any. Her great obsession was privacy.
A good part of the documentary relied upon interviews with people who had employed Maier – or been raised by her. Over the years, she had worked as a child minder in order to earn enough to stay alive, pay the rent on her small apartment in a lower end of town – and take photographs. The children she had raised, now adults had vivid memories of her (in later years two of them now adults had bought her an apartment where she spent the last years of her life).
The interviews were alternately moving and amusing. They were, by the standards of the contemporary media, long ones, giving people the time to reminisce, to bare their souls; a stark contrast with the cut and paste so commonplace in the media today.
This was a quality documentary.
Vivian Maier was an intelligent, eccentric and reclusive woman. The word ‘eccentric’ doesn’t adequately capture her sheer un-conventionality, her strangeness, and her individuality. She was one of those people who in her own private way redefined the idea of what it means to be a human being and how to live a life.
Born into a poor French immigrant family and raised in poverty, she never tried to ascend the socio-economic ladder and ‘better herself’. Her interest in material possessions extended as far a Rolleiflex camera and film. She worked as a child minder for middle class Americans; children were the only human beings she could relate to, although another consideration for her was this was a job which left her with plenty of free time.
If at any point she had allowed others to view her photos, she would have become a recognised artist and would have been able to live a better and more comfortable life – yet mysteriously she never seems to have considered this option.
Vivian Maier had no interest in conventional ideas of success.
She chose for anonymity.
She lived alone in small apartments with a heavy security lock on the door. When required to fill in her name on official documents, she often wrote the wrong name or deliberately misspelt it; when people asked her what she did for a living, she told them she was a spy – something which might have got her into trouble during the Cold War when America was paranoid of traitors and spies. Most people wrote her off as a crank.
And yet her description of herself as a ‘spy’ was uncannily prescient.
Vivian Maier was indeed a kind of spy: someone moving around incognito, chronicling the human condition in all its strange splendour, moving moments, and daunting tragedy. This after all is the essence of great black and white photographers, this portrayal, in stark and moving ways, of the human condition; this chronicling of life and history through powerful images which break through our natural tendency towards indifference.
And as far as this chronicling of the human condition went, Vivian Maier used other means besides her Rolleiflex. She collected newspapers – thousands of them. She knew what was going on politically and she knew about the widespread reality of poverty and hardship – the shadow side of the American Dream.
It was after she died and they went to clear out her apartment, that they found suitcases full of photo negatives and huge piles of old newsapers. The negatives were developed and then exhibited – and suddenly the name Vivian Maier was hauled out of obscurity.
That unknown woman, who had done everything possible to remain anonymous, was a pioneer – a feminist, an individualist, a progressive – as well as a great artist.
And seeing the documentary about her was a rare find on a TV system with endless choices as far as the number of channels went – but precious few when it came to content.