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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: January 23, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

    The astonishing story of Vivian Maier

    Laurence Mackin

    RTE’s Arena arts show recently featured a piece about the extraordinary story of photographer Vivian Maier. She was one of the first street photographers, and created a remarkable, personal archive of images that she kept a secret, to the extent that they nearly went unseen altogether.

    Maier’s work was unknown in her own lifetime. She was born in New York City and moved between the US and Europe before settling in NYC in 1951 and then leaving for Chicago in 1956. She spent most of her life working as a nanny and carer, and used her spare time to build up a staggering photographic archive of more than 100,000 negatives, from the 1950s up until the 1990s. She scrupulously hid all of it in storage and her work was only discovered by chance after one of her storage lockers was auctioned off, due to delinquency payments. (In later life, Maier was poor, may have spent some time homeless, and was taken care of by three of the people she had cared for as a nanny.)

    One of these storage lockers was bought at a thrift auction, and its contents eventually made it into the hands of John Maloof. He has built up the archive and championed her work, but it was only a few days after she died that he identified her as the photographer behind the collection of pictures.

    A handsome new website is now online, which does her pictures some justice, and Maloof’s original blog is still online. There is currently an exhibition of her images at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery in LA, and a documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier, is now in production.

    It hardly needs saying, but Maier seems to have been an intensely private person. Maloof says she was a socialist, a feminist and would hold forth on her liberal views. She had a gift for social documentary, and as well as taking pictures, she recorded interviews with some of her subjects. Most of her work is street scenes, and she frequently took pictures of homeless people or others who were marginalised in society, making the archive a brilliantly illustrative record of the development of modern America.

    There is a clarity to her images that is uncommon, and her work inevitably recalls that of Henri Cartier-Bresson, but it also carries echoes of Spanish photographer Luis Ramón Marín. He also had an astonishing backstory and, like Maier, his work went undiscovered for decades. It seems a terribly sad story, and there is still so much mystery surrounding Maier, but at least now her images have made it out of the storage boxes and into the limelight they deserve.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      She seemed especially interested in little children, old people, vagrants and indigents, random people holding hands, and reflections of herself in various shiny surfaces. I wonder what that might tell us? I’ve looked thru’ the entire Maloof collection in my lunch hour there. Thanks for that pointer Laurence. Some of the colour photos I was able to ‘get into’ more readily ‘cos they were taken around the time my brother and sisters and I as little kids (I was 11) went to the US for the first time on our hols with our Mum in 1977. Mum had one of those old 110 drop-in cartridge cameras back then (with the ”Flip Flash”!! A thing like a tower block that sat on the cam (and threw it out of balance) and allowed you to take up to 12 flash photos with its bank of one-time use bulbs). The quality of Mum’s old snaps evokes some sort of echo in my heart when I see similar taken by Ms Maier.
      There’s a kind of lonlliness to them. A sense of passing regret. What the Japanese might call ”mottinari”. And plenty of wabi-sabi in them too. The eloquence of empty spaces, of well-used things and faces, of ‘found’ items nobody values nor loves yet within themselves within their quiddity are vast oceans of speculation qua stories maybe.
      I get the impression that here was a woman who was entirely at ease within herself, who had no need for the world’s approval nor the validation of other people’s opinions. She lived a simple unobtrusive life and cultivated her mind and understanding. The Japanese would have a word for her also: shibui.


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