Vivian Maier: A photographer’s story

I learned about the amazing story of Vivian Maier last year and I’ve been hooked on it ever since.  It has everything that makes for a fascinating story — an intriguing hero, a call to adventure, a quest, and a mystery to solve.

In 2007, a Chicago historian named John Maloof bought an abandoned storage locker full of thousands of negatives. He began going through them, and suspecting they had some value, posted some of the photos online for photographers check out. People were blown away by the quality and depth of the work. John had discovered an unknown street photographer and since then, Vivian’s artwork and story has spread around the world.

Being interested in street photography, I was immediately struck by the beauty of her work.  Every new photo that came to light seemed to be a lost work of art. I saw a show of her photos last year at a small gallery in LA, which inspired me to get out in the streets and take more pictures. Some of the most interesting photos are her self-portraits — glimpses of Vivian in mirrors, in reflections of store windows, in silhouettes on the ground. Her self-portraits tell the story of an enigmatic life. Not much is known about her. Why did she take these pictures? Why hadn’t she ever shown them? Where was this amazing artist hiding all this time?

There’s a documentary coming out soon about this search for Vivian Maier. I can’t wait to see it. I love stories about art and creativity. Add a little mystery to that mix, and I’m hooked. Seems like a lot of other people are too. In five days, the trailer already has over 300,000 views.

The Academy Award-nominated documentary Searching for Sugarman, tells a similar story of a singer-songwriter who created two amazing albums that bombed in the U.S. but were huge hits in South Africa. The crazy thing is, the artist, Rodriguez, had no idea he was an international star. The documentary tells the story of the filmmaker trying to solve the mystery of who Rodriguez was and it’s more intriguing than any fictional movie I’ve seen in a long time.

For me, both stories are fascinating not just for their mysteries, but also because they ask the question: Why do we make art?  People have said it’s a tragedy that Vivian Maier’s work wasn’t recognized during her lifetime. But from what John Maloof has learned about her, it seems pretty clear that she wasn’t interested in being recognized and that she made art only for herself. The act of photographing people may have been an end in itself, as a lot of the film she shot was undeveloped when John discovered it.

But it’s clear she had a gift. And now that people have seen her photographs, they’ve been inspired, me included. Was she obligated to share that gift with the world when she was alive?

Rodriguez tried and no one listened. At least in the U.S. But now his music is being rediscovered and people love it. The first time I heard his songs in the documentary, I swore I had heard them before. It’s like rediscovering a classic folk album you forgot you had in your collection.

Maybe they were ahead of their time. Misunderstood, as most great artists are.

I suppose these stories are on my mind because nowadays it seems that there is an unspoken expectation to market oneself, to make your voice heard, to connect with your audience through Facebook, Tumblr, WordPress, Google +, Twitter, and all the other social media outlets.

I’ve felt that pressure when I have to do interviews when I’d rather not, or when I feel like I “should” post something online, just because.

This blog is different. I feel like I have something to say and I want to share it.

But sometimes I wonder. If Picasso or De Kooning were painting today, would they really be on deviantART? Would they be blogging their latest painting in progress? They might. They both were part of the artistic communities of their day, sharing ideas and their work with fellow artists. So they were doing the social network thing, just a little more old school.

I know that by going to the Rhode Island School of Design, and collaborating with great artists through my career that I’ve been challenged to grow as an artist more than I would have by myself.

Would Vivian Maier have found fame and success if she had shared her work when she was making it? Would her photographs be as intriguing without their backstory?

Part of what makes books, movies, and art fascinating are the stories of the people who created them and why they did so. I hope the Vivan Maier documentary sheds more light on both.

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6 thoughts on “Vivian Maier: A photographer’s story

  1. Thank you Sifu Mike, I think a combination of art being ahead of its time and having a back story helps accelerate appreciation but true art, the kind that comes from what I would describe as the heart with out adulteration is hard to ignore. With music though, I feel culture and upbringing affect ones ear, kind of like language development where you go through a window in your developmental cycle where your brain is more in tune to learning language, the same can be said of music, which is why different cultures like different styles of music and why everyone believes that the music from their teenage and early adult years is the best. Makes me feel old when I try to get younger folk to listen to 90s music and seeing their faces grimace in pain..

  2. I love Vivian Maier’s work too. There was a really great exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center about a year ago, and there’s currently one at the Chicago History Museum.
    Interesting thoughts about marketing and exposure as well. I go back and forth with it. I like having my work seen, but hate the gallery/art world scene. Luckily, I don’t need to rely on my art for income, so there’s no pressure to show it.

  3. I feel a bit guilty when I wish some people would see my work. It feels selfish. I get so scared that I’ll fail at an art career that I keep a tiny hope that people will notice me. I find more often the art I do for myself is singing, very few ever hear me truly sing. Just the dark sky and the steering wheel.

  4. Cool you have seen Looking for Sugarman, Mike! You said:
    “The documentary tells the story of the filmmaker trying to solve the mystery of who Rodriguez was and it’s more intriguing than any fictional movie I’ve seen in a long time.”

    That’s true. Like I said in another post, real stories (documentaries) can have a strong effect on you because it’s real. And Looking for Sugarman is kind of a fairy tale, but the fact being it’s a true story makes it very intriguing and touching indeed!

    I’ll make sure to check that Vivian out, I haven’t heard of her here in the Netherlands..

  5. I think the answer to all those questions isn’t just one.

    I study music and I know people who make music for themselves, they don’t worry if people like it or not, it’s a little complicate to understand.

    Most of the artist are forced to make art for the people in order to get some money or fame, but there’s a lot who actually don’t want that for their works.

    I’m just glad there’re these different types of artist, I think we need all of them.

  6. as children, we sometimes feel the need to perform, to “have that audience”, to occasionally get the “ooh’s” and “aah’s in order to gain approval and a feeling of accomplishment. we often do this with our art, from the scribbled drawings, the colorful handprint paintings that usually end up on the refrigerator gallery. As get older, the reasons to create or express ourselves changes. Now it may no longer be to expose or display ourselves to the world, but to reinforce an idea or a vision just to ourselves. I draw and Photograph as a hobby. I occasionally will be asked to photograph special events; i never sell my photos, i give them to the requestor, some end up on facebook to the ooh’s and ahhh’s of family and friends, but most get stowed away in a file in the computer or a large black binder on the bookshelf. in talking to myself, these pictures become part of the conversation, even if it’s to say “I saw that”.

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