Over the past few years the international photographic community welcomed the unknown Vivian Maier, the American nanny who studied the pulse of the streets of New York, Chicago, and other big cities for four decades (apr. 1950-1990). Lonely, self-taught Maier composed an archive of over 100.000 film negatives, claiming in delay a place in the great American school of street photography, as she never presented her work while being alive. The greatest part of her archive was bought some years ago by the historian-collector John Maloof. After a disclosure of images on the internet that went viral, the work started an international tour, awarding the photographer posthumous recognition.
Maier’s case raises interesting questions. How incongruous does it seem to sell the persistent endeavor of a well protected from the indiscreet eyes lifetime, in a cardboard for three hundred dollars, in the years of artificial betterment? Or, to ignore a person’s moderate life who thirsts for seeing without ever showing? What message does art, which cultivates an invisible garden at the time of constant loquacious communication, convey? Does one produce the same in density and quality work, in and out of the limits of publicity? Contrarily, to remind us of a great case of almost obsessive retirement, who would have wished for the poetry of Kavafis to be buried?
Maier did not print much and left thousands of negatives unprocessed. Can one create photographic art without standing over it, almost without knowing? What intermittent narration is inscribed so quietly in the eye’s memory? How far is the sincere modesty from introversion? Should perhaps, another story of photography shed light on the steps of talented creators who avoided the road of publicity, remaining dark matter in the entrails of galaxies where the glow of stars of art dominates? At the time of ‘I publish anything I do’, of narcissistic videos with the ‘making-of’ of the often incomplete projects, of the party-like uproar and so on, what signal does the documentary ‘Finding Vivian Maier’ transmit, when instead of shedding light on the content of this unknown work it persistently deals with the personal and professional life of secretive Maier? What voracious curiosity seeks satisfaction here? To what extend can one ignore the creative spark, photographic or not, of Maier and all those who were left through the cloak of a common life, in the danger of losing part of themselves in favor of the adventure of a work which exceeds and carries them away, setting aside the lifelines of reason and the weights of purpose? To what extend can one ignore people like her, for whom loneliness consists a hard but necessary shell of a soul focused on the delicate turbulences of existence?
The French philosopher Marcel Gauchet has written that great works do not exist anymore because the artist obviously opts himself rather than his work. If we have been trained, artists and audience alike, to consume with bulimia, security and self-interest the ideas, art, current affairs, everything, then where do the precious meanings of life escape? What do we meticulously avoid to meet through the rough, incessant noise? The fertile silence of Vivian Maier does not consist a conclusive answer. But it indicates the need, beyond the easiness of a stroke on the surface, for a dive into deep.
Hercules Papaioannou (Thessaloniki, Greece, 1962) is a photography scholar and curator of photography exhibitions and publications. He has published the books 'The Marlboro Land and the Lukewarm Wild West' (Agra, 2009), 'The Photography of the Greek Landscape - Between Myth and Ideology' (Agra, 2014) and he curated the publication 'Hellenic Photography and Photography in Greece' (Nefeli, 2013). Recently, in January 2016 he was appointed Director of Museum of Photography Thessaloniki.