Pathologizing Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier’s street photography is worthy of a Museum of Modern Art installation — whether she’d have wanted it displayed there is another question. Maier was a nanny for decades, all the while creating fantastic photographs, shooting from her waist-level Roliflex as she escorted children around Chicago. Collector John Maloof stumbled upon a trove of her stunningly reflective, beautifully composed negatives of city characters at an auction after her death, and subsequently applauded himself for Finding Vivian Maier in a documentary that hit U.S. theaters in March.

It was a treat to see Maier’s black and white perspective on the big screen — her candid shots are evocative, varied, and fresh, reminiscent of Leon Levinstein or Robert Frank, and still breathing more than fifty years later. She had a keen eye for poignant moments and lively characters, but she also took penetrating self-portraits and more abstract street shots.

But it quickly became clear that Maloof was more interested in painting Maier as an oddball than in understanding her ostensible contradictions, and worse, in pathologizing her double life to cast aspersions on her motives. “Why would a nanny be taking all these pictures?” he asks, as if the two are somehow mutually exclusive. He might have asked about Wallace Stevens, ‘Why would an insurance agent be writing all these poems?’ Maloof implies a romanticized ideal of the artist without any real-world evidence that giving up her day job would’ve made Maier a better photographer. As it was, Maier supervised children for so many years and still managed to take hundreds of thousands of top-notch stills.

Wouldn’t it have been more valuable to try empathizing with Maier’s desire to avoid any
limelight? Maybe avoiding that very limelight afforded her the unseen vantage point that made her photographs, many of them candid shots of people in action, unique.

Other prominent photographers bring much-needed expertise to a film that otherwise suffers from Maloof’s armchair psychoanalysis. But it would’ve been fascinating to hear from lesser-known street photographers on Maier’s decision, rather than from a giddy collector with good intentions but insufficient insight. I also would’ve liked to know whether Maier herself was interested in and following fellow street photographers, who she learned from and vice versa.

Maloof deserves credit and gratitude for recognizing what a trove he’d happened upon, and for bringing it to elite artists to contextualize and publicize. But he might be doing more harm than good by speculating so much. I suspect we’d learn more by simply studying Maier’s work on its own.

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