For some years I took pictures -- lots of them -- alone and with my partner. We would load one camera with black & white film, the other with colour, and set out on the streets of Jerusalem or Tel-Aviv, the beaches, the deserts and the Sinai peninsula. We travelled to Egypt for a month, much of which was spent in a tiny oasis close to hot springs, the White Desert, the Black Desert, and Crystal Mountain; the simple but amazing beauty of these places reflected in their names. Crystal Mountain really was a huge mountain made entirely of crystals; the Black Desert contained volcanic rock and black sand. Some of those pictures are probably amazing -- but I didn’t have enough money to develop the rolls of film. At the end of the relationship, the other party kept those undeveloped rolls. I had to move on and leave those imagined images behind, but my love for photography is life long.
Years later, I was living on a narrowboat on the Oxford Canal. One of my neighbours, Jeff Slade, was a keen and fantastic photographer. My partner sent him an article about an exhibition in Chicago. There were only a few pictures in the article, but we were all captivated by them. The composition of the photographs framed only one small part of a scene, landscape, or story, yet the pictures seemed to illustrate so much more.
The photographer was Vivian Maier. Her story is soon to be widely known, which is well-deserved, but by all accounts she would have hated every minute of it.
She was born on 1 February 1926 in New York City, to an Austrian father and French mother. She moved to France with her mother, where she spent most of her childhood. In 1949, when she was 23, Vivian began taking photos with a Kodak Brownie box camera. She returned to New York by steamship in 1951 and started work as a nanny. She bought a Rolleiflex camera and continued taking pictures. In 1956, she moved to the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, again taking employment as a nanny, this time for a family with three boys.
She started using colour film in about 1970, and began to photograph more objects as well as people. She travelled widely – to Canada, India, Egypt, Yemen, South America, Europe, and the Caribbean Islands. She appears to have had no further contact with her own family, and always travelled alone. The few people who did know her all describe her as eccentric, opinionated, intellectual, and private. She didn’t show her pictures to anyone.
So how do we know anything about her?
After her nannying ended, Vivian could no longer afford to develop her photos, but continued taking them, collecting rolls of undeveloped film. Following a period in which she was probably homeless, the now grown-up boys helped to pay for an apartment, and she stored her photographs in lockers. In 2007, he contents of her storage lockers were auctioned off due to non-payment of rent. Inside the lockers were over 100,000 negatives, thousands of prints, and numerous undeveloped rolls of film.
One of the buyers of the auction lots was John Maloof, who was researching for a book on the history of the NW side of Chicago. Amongst the photos he found a scrap of paper with Vivian’s name on it; a year later he decided to google her. He found her obituary, written the day before, following her death only two days previously. He started a blog to show her work, and word spread quickly. Gallery exhibitions were arranged, and now a book and documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier is in production, directed and produced by John Maloor and Charlie Siskel.
Her photographs are street photography at its best, encapsulating portrait, place and time. Leaving very little personal trace from her life, Vivian has left us all with thousands of stills from her gaze.
Ruthanna Barnett is currently based in Santa Cruz, California. She is a part-time immigration lawyer, clinic defender, gardener, knitter, baker, and a full-time radical feminist and opinion-holder. She is a passionate advocate for human rights, in particular for women. She very much enjoys living on the Central California coast and watching hummingbirds.
Editor's Note: Special thanks to Ruthanna for writing this - she's not someone who likes to write, but I knew she'd choose a fantastic subject! I love that Vivian Maier is a kindred nomadic spirit! Check out all the Women You Should Know series this Women's History Month. You can find the ones from March 2012 in the blog archive. If you are interested in being a guest blogger on the Zestyverse, let me know!