SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT FINDING VIVIAN MAIER

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I wrote about photographers in the movies for the Telegraph website, to tie in with the UK release of the documentary Finding Vivian Maier. My first draft, however, didn’t go to plan; what I wrote turned into a sort of review, or at least a collection of thoughts inspired by the film, instead of the more general piece I’d had in mind. The Telegraph site had already posted an official review, so I scrubbed everything I’d written and started again. You can find the finished piece, which includes ten of my favourite movie photographers, here. 

But I collected the cut bits of my original draft together, because I haven’t seen all these points raised in other critiques.  Do please feel free to discuss them in the comments.

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Finding Vivian Maier is a fascinating documentary that raises more questions than it answers. Her photographs are now being sold for thousands of dollars, but who profits from the sale? Certainly not the nanny whose thousands of negatives and rolls of film were developed and printed up only after her death, many of them by the film’s co-director John Maloof. On the other hand, anyone who has ever sorted through boxes of old negatives, printed them up or had them printed, and then arranged for them to be exhibited can testify that it is a massive amount of work, so why shouldn’t Maloof profit from it?

The film doesn’t address this question, though does, tentatively air the possibility that Maier herself might not have wanted her photographs to be made public in the first place. The issue of the privacy of her subjects, however, is never addressed, though every photographer who has ever taken pictures in the street has probably wondered about it. At what point does it become permissible to expose to the public the images of people who are not professional models, or who have not signed any sort of release form, or who might not have even been aware that they were being photographed? When is the cut-off point? A few months? A few years? A few decades, when they might be dead anyway? Is it OK to use such pictures on a blog, where not many people will see them? Or is everyone a potential photographic subject, someone who signs away all rights to their own image by simply stepping out of their front door?

Maier’s point, click and put-straight-into-storage-without-examining-the-results approach makes you wonder how much photography is the art of what Henri Carter-Bresson called “The Decisive Moment”, when eye, brain and instinct all come together in the pressing of the shutter button, and to what degree the subsequent curating and printing and presentation of the images is – or is not – a part of that process.

Beyond opining that Maier was more interested in taking pictures than in printing them up, and informing us she used a Rolleiflex Twin-Lens Reflex camera, the documentary barely touches on the technical aspects of her craft. How did she learn and refine it? How did she develop as a photographer if she never looked at the results? As Graham Fuller’s Sight & Sound review points out, the BBC documentary Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures? presents a picture of a photographer who was less artistically naïve than Maloof’s film suggests – far from operating in a cultural vacuum, she went to the cinema regularly, and almost certainly attended a major MOMA exhibition of French art in 1952.

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Do Maier’s trunkfuls of photographs also include stacks of overexposed early images, or did she instinctively grasp the principles of exposure from the very beginning? (It took me years to get to grips with it – but then I have always been a lummox in matters of science. Did she have a head for it?) Did she use a built-in light meter, or an external one, or did she calculate light readings in her head? Did she make mistakes, or was she just lucky? Did she ever change lenses, or – since this was a Rolleiflex – use attachments?

Such questions might be meaningless to someone brought up with iPhones and digital cameras, to whom the idea of having to wait days, weeks or months before they can see the photo they’ve just taken must be unimaginable. Have they any notion of the constraints (not all of them unwelcome) of having to use a fixed lens, without being able to zoom in and out at will? And does it ever occur to them to keep their selfies or holiday photos private, instead of posting them on blogs, or Facebook, or Twitter? If Vivian Maier had started taking photographs now, would she still be keeping them to herself? Or is the culture of privacy extinct?

Perhaps most poignantly, Finding Vivian Meyer is a record of a type of photography that is now becoming obsolete, an ode to a certain type of photographer whose mystique is waning in the era of the Citizen Photojournalist, but whose glamour will be forever enshrined in the movies, there to be puzzled over by future generations who can’t sit through a concert without filming it on their iPad Minis.

The film is also a study of how the passing of time can turn any old street scenes into literal snapshots of the past, taken at a time when not everyone wielded a camera, and few of those that did ever thought to turn their lenses in directions where nothing much was happening – the very scenes that seem most interesting to us today. In future, on the other hand, there will be such a surfeit of photographic record of every last aspect of quotidian western life – what I’m wearing! what my cat is doing! what I had for breakfast! – that the art will probably lie in pinpointing the exquisite and unusual amid the mountains of mediocrity.

“Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” Susan Sontag wrote those words in 1977, but they could be an axiom for our age.

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All photographs are by Vivian Maier. The documentary’s official website is here.

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9 thoughts on “SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT FINDING VIVIAN MAIER

  1. Documentaries have changed, they now seem to be just another form of “entertainment”. They have to have some form of “narrative arc” or to use a dread phrase; you are required to “join” the narrator on his/her “journey” towards a “resolution”.

    I’d not heard anything this film until you pointed it out and it piqued my interest. But as you say there are very many unanswered questions, and this caused me to think.

    My initial thought was; is this person real? Or is this an elaborate deception? A kind of cinematic jeu d’esprit.[Possibly not the “mot juste” but I was rubbish at French.]

    [“I’d be a professional cynic, but my heart’s not in it”.]

    My second thought was; if it was real are the film makers entirely honest or do they embroider for effect? Or have they cherry-picked elements of a true life and wrapped them in a cosy cinema friendly narrative?

    Not having seen the film, the rest of my thoughts would be just speculation. But something didn’t feel quite right, especially about her just shooting rolls of film and putting them away.

    So I went for a nosy about. She took about 150,000 pictures, most were developed. [Some thousands were not developed, but “some” thousands out of 150,000 isn’t that many]. About 5000 were printed, some were compiled into albums and a few were framed and hung. So the truth is not quite how it was portrayed.

    [Not quite sure how much BBC content gets over the channel, but if you can wangle it through iPlayer? On Tuesday 5th of August 2014 there is a repeat of the BBC doc. “Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?” from last year.]

    [Going off piste slightly, I quite like the double slit skirt, it’s a practical solution to the problem of how to film the scene and establish the character of Laura. And there is something about ‘mirroring’ going on, but I’d have to rewatch it to remember which elements map to which bits.

    Yes, the whole depiction of a photo shoot is complete rubbish and nothing like any of the ones I was ever involved in. “But it’s only a movie!”]

  2. Interesting points. Here’s another paragraph I cut from an earlier draft:

    “The documentary is not just the story of the packaging of a hitherto undiscovered photographer (and how many more must there be whose work, unlike Maier’s, has never seen the light of day?) but also incorporates Maloof’s attempts at justifying what might be viewed as an intrusion into someone’s private life and work, as well as the imposition of a possibly misleading narrative. (And it shouldn’t be overlooked that curating and printing and presenting photographs is also a lot of work, so why shouldn’t he profit from it?)”

    Not only is Dunaway’s skirt absurd (what’s wrong with trousers or jeans? OK, I guess it’s a daft movie, so she has to show some leg) – her photo-taking stance, crouched down with one leg stuck out at 90 degree, just looks to me to be completely impractical.

  3. Ah the mist thins a little further!

    I was going to say:-

    The whole affair still has a slight whiff of… grave robbing. Perhaps that is a slight exaggeration, but people raking through a recently dead persons stuff to become “Internet Famous” feels a bit… off.

    [But on having done a bit more research, they’d got hold of the material before she died.]

    If he makes a profit, good luck to him. I’m not sure if the costs are all that great nowadays, instant, digital, no chemicals, no paper and you only have to commit to prints when the contract to show them has been signed.

    Having looked at some of her photos that have been put up on-line, there is the odd good one but most are just ‘snaps’, My Grandparents had hundreds of colour slides that looked no worse.

    For example there is a photo of the Sphinx, framed between two pyramids, but the both pyramids are half out of shot and prominent in the lower left foreground is a horses arse! Not what I would call an iconic image.

    The whole thing seems to be bouyed up by an enormous sense of ‘Sehnsucht’, combined with the apparent mystique around the photographer.

    The decision of when, if ever to publish a picture resolves down to a moral question, and to explore that would take many words. But I’m going to duck that for the minute and look out my copy of ‘Laura Mars’. [I do remember the sticky-out leg thing, but there are other odd things, as well as that skirt.]

    • Well, it’s all down to the curating, and whoever makes the decisions about which photographs to publish, which is why I think that’s an issue that needs to be aired further – which it isn’t in the Maloof documentary.

      But Maier HAS done some great stuff – I think I might prefer her colour work to the black and white.

      And not every photographs is a one-shot-only one-off. I bet that for every great photograph by a great photographer there are several if not dozens of less notable versions of the same scene that they elected not to display. That’s as much a creative decision as choosing what to photograph in the first place, IMO.

  4. I agree with th first bit, to a point, I’ll come back to that later.

    Not seen any of her colour work I will go and look it up, I promise.

    Nail on the head, but some of the Maier images that they have chosen to release are extraordinarily; well er… ordinary.

    [I’m Laura Mars-ing atm.

    There is a very odd ‘Florry Nightingale’ outfit to start with, very high choke collar. Which is completely undercut by being slashed open to the navel and worn with out underpinnings.

    Tommy Lee looking dangerous and satyric.

    Surprise Dwarf, [I’d forgotten about that.]

    Film scene coming up:

    Hmmm… It’s not a skirt! They are culottes, well there’s a thing.}

  5. Having whizzed through the film, [with a break half way for noodles, beef and mushroom with oyster sauce as it happens], the iconic image isn’t quite there as I picture it in my mind.

    The first photo shoot, exterior, she plants a knee on a rolled up mat, does a bit of the leg sticky out thing but pulls it in when she frames the shot. It’s not brilliant but the knee length suede boots with a 3″ heel don’t help.

    The second photo shoot, interior, only slightly better, there is even a camera…………….. on a tripod! ……….[for about 3 seconds] Though quite why all the models keep jiggling about in a completely uncordinated manner is a bit of a mystery, [but that might just be me! And it was 1978.]

    There is a closeup shot where she is using a 35mm Nikon and she has her eye pressed up to it about 2″to the left of the viewfinder, I’d guess holding it properly would have covered up too much of her face and not allow the viewers to see ‘the acting’!

    Costume design by Theoni V. Aldredge, award winning Broadway designer, where split to the hip is the norm, it’s probably a dancer thing? Also did the costume work on Ghostbusters.

    This sent me off in another direction, ie. is this a TVA hallmark? Dana’s dress is a normal circle when she floats over the bed, but when she meets the Keymaster it has a thigh high slit, [but having your apartment explode around you as a result of supernatural forces might do that to a girl.] Though perhaps the real reason is more prosaic, to drape herself over the armchair in that pose wouldn’t be possible in a closed skirt?

    I did track down the image that comes into my mind, and it turns out to be not from the film, but a publicity shot, posed later. Same ‘skirt’, but a blue blouse and some perilously thin spike heels with a spaghetti strap round the ankle. Credited to Rebecca Blake, but it’s not on her website for some reason.

    Heres another link to the image:

    http://www.noelyates.co.uk/r_users.htm [bottom of the page]

    • Great photo of Dunaway! And COMPLETELY ridiculous (from a practical picture-taking point-of-view) pose.

      You are doing sterling research here, sir. Do you have your own blog? Because your findings on split skirts in Eyes and Ghostbusters deserve – nay, DEMAND! – a blog-post of their own!

      And I think I knew Dunaway’s “skirt” in the car crash shoot was actuallu culottes – I have it written down somewhere, just couldn’t get absolute proof in the clips I had to hand.

      I had some red culottes when I was about 13 or 14. I was very proud of them.

  6. BREAKING NEWS!

    No not really, but culottes have been sighted in another film! “Airplane 2 The Sequel” as worn by the cabin crew. (Julie Hagerty gets the much better deal fashionwise with a tailored suit.)

    Returning to FayeD it’s only readily visible when she is selecting the furs outside the trailer, She has her back to the camera and Rene Auberjonois is hogging the shot doing some vitally important ‘explaining’ at this point so it is very easily missed. Any shots you could grab would be virtually unusable.

    Since those two snippets are so dreadfully slight: let’s spice it up with some “news from our sponsors!” (there are no sponsors, it’s just a thing I found.)

    🐱

    http://www.johnlewis.com/natural-products-purfect-pen-black/p791581

    🐱

  7. Pingback: PHOTOGRAPHERS IN THE MOVIES: A DYING BREED? | MULTIGLOM

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