Yesterday I went to the Des Moines Art Center to see Vivian Maier: Through a Critical Lens. Like many, I instantly became a fan when she went viral online a few years ago. I loved her work both for her photographs and her story. Maier was a Chicago nanny who was also an avid photographer. Late in her life, financial restrictions forced her to move to a small apartment and keep many of her belongings in a storage unit. In 2007, she ran out of money to continue making payments on the storage unit and her belongings were sold to a Chicago auctioneer for $250.
Maier died in April 2009. A man named John Maloof purchased one of her lots at auction and posted some images online six months after her death. People have been obsessed with her photographs ever since.
The biggest controversy surrounding Maier’s work, of course, is whether she intended for it to ever be shown and if it is ethical to do so. According to the book Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, she was secretive about her photography and would not discuss her work with employees at the drug store that developed her negatives who recognized her talent. When she lived with families as a nanny, they were not allowed inside her space, where she set up a darkroom in her bathroom.
For filmmakers, for her fans, and for the people who knew her when she was alive and now must reconcile that elusive figure with her posthumous reputation as an artist, Maier’s story is titillating precisely because of how it deviates from the familiar narratives about artistic aspiration. They can’t understand why she never put aside her profession for her passion. People who never saw her without a Rolleiflex around her neck express bewilderment that they were in the company of a great talent. (“She was a nanny, for God’s sakes.”)
— Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women by Rose Lichter-Marck,
Our automatic assumption, as humans and as photographers, is that photographs are taken with the purpose of sharing. We cannot be sure this was Maier’s goal, however, especially since she continued to shoot even after running out of money to pay for processing. This could indicate that she took photos simply for the purpose of shooting.
Whether it be because she was not confident in her work or was too private, she clearly did not want to share her work during her life. Assuming Maier would have wanted her work shared after her death, it is impossible to know which photos she would have chosen to show or how.
Because few vintage prints exist, we also cannot know how she would have printed her work. Many aesthetic choices are made in the darkroom and the artist did not did not have any say regarding the printing of the images displayed.
We cannot even know how she would have cropped them. At the exhibition, I noticed several images were crooked and wondered if it would be ethical to make a seemingly small edit like straightening them.
If you want to learn more about Maier, I would recommend the documentary Finding Vivian Maier. It details how Maloof purchased and curated her images and is currently available on Netflix.