Vivian Maier died in 2009 without knowing that she would soon be seen as one of the great street photographers. We don’t know if it’s what she would have wanted.
Maier was born in 1926 in New York and largely raised in the French Alps before spending her adulthood in Chicago, working as a nanny for 40 years. She photographed the kids in her care and the other kids on the street, but childcare was just a job to keep her in lenses and celluloid. Whenever she had spare time, she took the downtown train and captured moments in the city. That was her art, and Vivian Maier was a superlative artist.
She left behind a storage unit stuffed with suitcases and boxes stuffed with exposed rolls of film: thousands upon thousands of pictures, so many that Imagine: Vivian Maier (Tuesday BBC1; iPlayer) could present them in torrents and let us get drunk on how perfect they were. Maier could do you a cracking skyline, main-street bustle or, back in the Alps, a bucolic panorama, but her signature shot was of an individual experiencing anguish, exhaustion, ennui or defiance.
Her ability to get those pictures was supernatural. Strangers, in Chicago’s rougher areas, were photographed from three feet away and were often posing for Maier, somehow without losing the immediacy of what they were feeling. Children were captured in a way that’s normally only achievable by their own parents. Maier could pull this off despite being – or perhaps as a result of being – deliberately absent from society in almost every other respect. As one contributor to the documentary said: “People allowed it because she wasn’t there.”
Maier’s room would be out of bounds and full of newspapers and ephemera. She never married or had kids. As Imagine dug into her past, it found she’d written her own parents out of history by falsely claiming on her passport application that they were dead. And despite assiduously teaching herself her craft by studying established photographers, she showed little interest in achieving recognition. One of her employers was the picture editor on a newspaper. Still Maier said nothing and showed her work to nobody.
What this meant was that Maier’s work was unsullied by commerce, expectation or competition. She didn’t live to find out about an art dealer driving eight hours from Chicago to southern Indiana, with a vest full of cash and a sturdy friend for back-up, to buy up some Maier negatives. She didn’t have to take the next picture while thinking about the popularity of the previous one. She didn’t have to decline interviews, because she made sure nobody ever knew who she was.
When one of the hastily self-appointed Maierologists in the Imagine film observed that while some of the work was “sweet”, some of it was rather “judgemental”, it highlighted the problem we have now. Nearly all art is editing. It’s in choosing what to express, as much as being able to express it. That Maier isn’t helping to curate exhibitions of her work means they might have their focus wrong. Fortunately, galleries can display whole rolls of her film, unedited, since each shot is so precisely fraught.
One of the few people who knew her described her politics as lefty, feminist, in your face. Maier’s work was humane and compassionate, often concerned with marginal and unfortunate people. She was powered by the emotion that drives so many great films and, particularly, novels: loneliness. Maier had a simultaneous fear of, and longing for, connections with other humans. She was the spectator who understood more of the game.
Her talent abides. Her talent was, by her own design, all there was to her.
Why Am I Still Single? (Wednesday C4, 4oD) was one of those reality docs where you can’t believe anyone would volunteer – but thank goodness they did. Naomi and Alexis were two 30something strangers who each gave the other full access to their flat, friends, family, social media, colleagues and ex-partners for four days. Finally they would meet for the first time and give brutal assessments of why they couldn’t find love.
We were meant to share our attention between the two investigations, but Lex’s problem was easily diagnosed: he was psychologically stuck in his early 20s and still enjoyed playing drums, drinking with his mates and using words like “safe” and “brrrrap” too much to settle down. His most significant ex said he was a child in a man’s body.
The programme was all about Naomi. Loud, blonde, confident Naomi, with her Pamela Anderson posters, Twitter background of her own buttock tattoo and career as a stand-up comic. Her friends lamented that she grilled men about sex after ten minutes of a first date. Lex, who was a natural at this personality detective lark, quickly saw that there was a vulnerable lost soul beneath the brassy veneer.
Even Naomi’s delve into Lex’s past revealed more about her than him. When his childhood sweetheart read out a letter he’d written her, when he was in India and she, his “magic star”, was in his thoughts as he looked up at the night sky, Naomi couldn’t stop crying.
As Lex sifted through Naomi’s past relationships and back to her broken upbringing, her ex-boyfriend David loomed ever larger. In to-camera interviews we learned from Naomi herself that she desperately regretted “f***ing it up” by being too brash and difficult. Lex deduced how important David was and so, by the time Lex spoke to David, he and we were emotionally invested in sorting it out.
Then the twist: David revealed that he and Naomi were still casually sleeping together. Knowing it could never be casual for Naomi, Lex instantly, thrillingly rounded on David, telling him with shaky indignance to man up or get lost, fiercely defending the honour of this woman he’d never met.
The format of the programme meant those involved laid bare their weaknesses in a way people in everyday life almost never do – but when they do, it’s impossible not to root for them. Naomi and Lex achieved that new kind of fame that nosy 21st-century documentaries, when they’re good, can bestow: instead of being famous for 15 minutes, they were our beloved best friends for an hour.
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