What if you spent your whole life perfecting your craft and creating heart-achingly beautiful pieces but you never showed anyone? Would that make your work ‘art’? That’s probably a question that we don’t ask too often. If someone’s good enough, they’ll make it eventually right? But what if we stop for a second and consider that greatness and success aren’t necessarily the same thing.
The case of Vivian Maier is one of those rare events that completely flips our notions of what an artist is. And if it wasn’t for an amateur antique hunter discovering a box of undeveloped negatives in a random auction one day, we probably would have never heard of her at all. Uncovering Vivian Maier tells the strange story of a nanny who spent her life taking hundreds of thousands of photographs, which she never developed. A woman who travelled the world and pioneered street photography long before it became fashionable, Maier presents a bizarre, inspiring, brave and quite troubled picture of an artist. One stripped of the benefits of wealth, fame and privilege.
I have to admit that I went into the film not really expecting her work to be that good, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. Armed with a twin-lens Rolleiflex camera and an unobtrusive, low-key demeanor Maier was able to get so close to her subjects, catching them in beautifully unguarded moments, with all the pain, beauty and messiness of their crazy lives. It’s really sad that this complex, trail-blazing woman was never able to claim her place in the photography canon alongside her male contemporaries. Even now, with issues over copyright, lots of galleries are refusing to hang her pictures despite this whole fascinating story coming to light. I guess it makes me wonder how many other great artists or writers we’ve missed out on.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Maier, I highly recommend reading the New Yorker article, Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women.