I’ve been using my camera more, using it to see the world differently, or to see my world differently. My interest has led me to research female photographers.
There are the well-known photographers, Dorothea Lange, being the most documented, and Annie Leibovitz, whose latest book, Pilgrimage, was an unexpected gift from a friend. Everyone knows of her life, her lover, Susan Sontag, her story as famous as the people she photographs. Sally Mann, and Diane Arbus, with slick web sites and books filled with their work, seem hyper-aware of their place in the world of photography. Cindy Sherman and Carrie Mae Weems, are two other well-known female photographers my friend suggested I research. Then there is the mysterious Vivian Maier, who worked as a nanny, and who took thousands of photographs that almost no one knew about until after her death.
John Maloof is responsible for saving Vivian Maier's work from probable obscurity. Maloof, a real-estate agent, purchased a box of Maier's unidentified negatives at a storage locker auction in 2007. It contained 30,000 of her more than 100,000 photographic negatives.
The recently released documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, directed and produced by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, traces the life of Maier and her previously unknown photographs, gives us her pieced-together history, but cannot answer the questions of why she took the photographs, why she didn't share them with others, and who this woman ultimately was.
Vivian Maier did not seek recognition; her habitual photo-taking seems a personal and private enterprise. This surprises us, causes concern. In a culture where privacy is less important than self-promotion, we are suspicious of someone who is both creative and private. If what we do isn’t shared, is it real, is it important, is it even necessary?
If I write a poem and never submit it, is it viable?
I have always encouraged others to submit their work, to use words to inform and encourage. I believe in the importance of sharing what I create, but I also have a fierce streak of privacy. How to reconcile the need for privacy and the desire to share what I’ve learned, what I feel might inform someone else?
Vivian Maier is an extreme example of the private citizen, someone who was obsessed with what we can dismissively label a hobby, a pastime, who did not seek recognition. Is she similar to my mother-in-law who cooked excellent meals but never thought to write a cookbook? Or my grandmother who rode across the country in a Model T and never thought to write a memoir afterwards? What of the poet who writes prolifically and secretly? The painter who never shows his work?
I am fascinated with Vivian Maier, with the nanny who carried her camera into the seediest of neighborhoods to capture ordinary people living ordinary lives, but even more so, I'm fascinated with her enigmatic spirit. I will never know her intimate thoughts about her work, or if she loved someone besides the children she helped raise. I will never (thank goodness) read her ruminations about creativity. The only way to know Maier is to study her subjects, who and what she chose to photograph, and that is the most pure approach to art that I can imagine. Art for art's sake.
Vivian Maier's work has always been viable, now it is visible. Possibly it's popularity, coming so soon after her death, is the final triumph of a very private woman.
My writing often deals with the environment, my poetry filled with allusions to natural and man-made disasters. I have unlimited hope though, there is just too much wonder in this world to become a defeatist. As Margaret J. Wheatley said, Hopelessness has surprised me with patience.