Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"God's Spy" (on Finding Vivian Maier and her photography) by Douglas Messerli

god’s spy

by Douglas Messerli

John Maloof and Charles Siskel (directors) Finding Vivian Maier / 2013

             Come, let’s away to prison;
We two alone will sing like birds I’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness: and we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses, and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sets of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon.

                                            King Lear, ACT V, Sc. 2

John Maloof’s and Charles Siskel’s 2013 documentary Finding Vivian Maier begins with several of the interviewees—former employers of Maier’s, children for whom she served as nanny, and art critics—seemingly being momentarily speechless, apparently since they have just been asked to describe their central emotion regarding the figure at the center of this film.

    Indeed, they all express slightly different responses, but all of them—except for the art critic’s expression of envy of the film’s narrator, Maloof, who uncovered the vast cache of photographs (most of them still undeveloped), payment stubs, pins, toys, medals, and newspapers that Maier had left behind—express a kind of bemused wonderment and confusion about this fascinating woman’s existence.

    What gradually becomes apparent through the nearly hour and a half that follows is that Maier was a brilliant outsider-like artist working within numerous traditions of street photography that might be compared with artists from Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, and Gordon Parks to Cartier-Bresson and numerous other older U.S. and international photographers, while still remaining absolutely original. 
     Maier was a true talent, who evidently (so we eventually discover) perceived photography as her major endeavor, yet never printed or apparently even saw most of the images she shot. The art establishment, accordingly, has had a difficult time in characterizing and evaluating her work: an outsider artist is one thing, but an outsider who never even attempted to reveal most of her artifacts and, literally, hid them away, is quite another. Who was this woman, who worked throughout most of her life as a nanny, and yet appeared to many of her families as aloof and apart, a figure, much like the stereotype of an artist, who often treated their own children with a certain, objective, aloofness and even disdain that might even have put them in harm’s way.
    While some of those interviewed attest to her love and her children and their love of her, others—including a couple of those children grown up—admit to a darker side of Maier’s personality that when revealed puts them at the center of mild child abuse, force-feeding, slaps, and even somewhat compulsive behavior (as when one young girl’s purchase of trinkets is hosed down in a highly ammoniac concentration of water). Films Maier left behind show her sometimes gently questioning and frolicking with her young charges, while at other times she appears to be following in the tracks of a famous murder victim as described in the daily headlines.

     Maier, it appears, was also a kind of pack-rat, saving an enormously large collection of newspapers whose lurid headlines shouted out murders and other lurid deeds with which she as morbidly fascinated. One senses a desire, when she combines this with her photography, to play, at least temporarily, the role of journalist. I, too, occasionally save newspaper articles which may later find their way into my annual writings; but I clip out particular pieces and rarely save them after I’ve put them to use or realized that these possibly interesting subjects nonetheless remain separate from my specific concerns. Maier saved them all in total, almost as a librarian might, hinting she saw them not only as sources for her art but as a kind of record of or testament about the cruelty she found in the world.

     What becomes an open question of this lucid and yet sometimes obscurantist film is what happened to Vivian Maier as a young girl that led her to compulsively explore the dark side of human behavior. It is apparent that some sort of abuse she had experienced or observed drove her art. At times she appeared to be interested merely in people going about their everyday business, working people smiling, simply enjoying themselves; but far more often her figures, human and animal, appear to have been abandoned by the society around them, abused, punished, even tortured. Like the German artist, Hans Bellmer, she appears to be utterly fascinated by the naked manikins in store windows, lying about without heads, arms, and legs. At one point a child with whom she associated, hit by a car, is objectified by her camera as a victim. And many of her street encounters concern figures clearly victimized by the society around them, representing children in tears, a small Black boy shining the shoes of another white boy of the same age, the poor forced into manual labor in order to survive.  
      A tall woman, with what is described by all as an overly-strident and determined gait, Maier apparently saw himself as a kind of monstrous Cyclops (in one memorable photo her figure rises up as a dark shadow at the center of which lays the reflected image of the camera lens, the tool of her art being more realistically registered than the artist behind it) surrounded by the trolls for whom she was caring. 
     In some respects, her choice of occupation makes perfect sense: her job as children’s caretaker allowed her complete entry into wealthy homes, food, housing, at least a regular, if small, salary, and an opportunity to move out into the community with her charges in tow. An office job, clearly, would never have allowed her to carry her camera daily around her neck as she was allowed by her rather open-minded parents, or the possibility of movement throughout the city—although there is some evidence that she was chastised for taking the children into disreputable neighborhoods.

      What her nanny job also permitted was for Maier to declare her own space as inviolable, a sacred domain in which no one was allowed entry. Her employers evidently felt that she deserved this small concession (sometimes along with the larger ones she demanded). But what was even more strange is the fact that, although to her employers she was a fairly open figure named Vivian Maier, to most others she intentionally remained shadowy, refusing to give up even a name or address to tradesmen and others whose lives were lived outside of the circle of her temporary home position. Possibly, Maier even affected a French-Alsatian accent in an attempt to further hide her American identity.*

      It was almost as if, in practicing her art—an art that seemed to be concerned with a documentation of her world and a testifying to the evils in it—she felt the need to be incognito, to be a secret agent, or a kind “God’s spy” determined to reveal the details of the evil she had discovered in mankind’s heart, while she operated, meanwhile, in a kind of protected cocoon of innocence—surely also a sort of prison—in which the children around her existed. While Maier—who was very much, it appears, in touch with the world around her and aware of cultural precedents—cannot precisely be described as an outsider artist, she shares some kinship, it appears, with Henry Darger, who felt compelled to tell, in painting, collages, and writing, of the terrible adventures of the innocent yet sometimes brutal young girls—oddly enough, named the Vivian girls—who lived in a world that threatened them with murder and mayhem.  

      What we are left with in the thousands of rolls of photographs and films she left behind, no matter how brilliantly imaged, lit, and framed, seem to be part of a larger whole which we never will fully comprehend. Perhaps, this documentary implies, Maier saw herself as a grand documentarian, as a purposely mysterious figure whose purpose was to take down in her images the realities of human behavior that resulted in suffering, hurt, pain, even torture. Clearly, she saw the human situation, at certain moments, from the other end of the looking glass; many of works, indeed, reveal the possibilities of joy and meaning in life. But one feels that, at heart, Vivien Maier saw a more important role as witness to the horrors of the 20th century, and that, even in her hard-working, smiling figures (as in the works of Arbus) that another darker drama lay behind their lives. If her street scenes are often vibrant, so too are they fraught with danger, or simultaneously imply that there are darker realities just behind the frame. Her Rolleflex camera hanging between her breasts, freed her to look straight into the face of her dissembling believers while trapping the despair she sensed that surrounded them.


*Although Maier was born in the US, her mother was apparently from Alsace, and Maier herself traveled there at least twice for periods of time.

Los Angeles, January 25, 2015

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