The Emily Dickinson of Photography

Posted by on January 10, 2011

I look at Vivian Maier and remember Jane Hathaway, Mr. Drysdale’s scholarly secretary on The Beverly Hillbillies.

Vivian was born in France in 1926. We don’t know how or when Vivian came to America, but at age 11 she began working in a New York sweatshop.

She learned English by sitting in movie theaters, alone in the dark.

Alone in the dark. That pretty much describes Vivian’s life except for 1959, the year she turned 33 and found just enough money to travel abroad to strange and exotic places; Egypt, Thailand, Vietnam, France, Italy, Indonesia, Taiwan.

Highly unusual for a woman of her time, Vivian journeyed alone.

Even more unusual, she often wore a man’s bulky jacket, ugly and awkward men’s shoes and a large, floppy hat. And she constantly took photographs that she never showed anyone.

It appears that Vivian escaped the sweatshops by moving to Chicago in the early 1950’s and taking work as a nanny to three young boys: Matthew, Lane and John are now old men but remember Vivian as “peculiar, our own Mary Poppins. One time she brought home a dead snake to show us, another time she convinced the milkman to drive us all to school in his delivery truck. But in the 10 years she worked for our family, she never once received a phone call.”

When the 3 boys were raised, Vivian became unemployed. The next half-century saw her shift from family to family, always caring for children who were not her own.

One employer hired Vivian to care for his disabled daughter. “But first thing in the morning on her day off, that camera would be around her neck and we wouldn’t see her again until late at night. I remember her as a private person but one who had very strong opinions about movies and politics.”

Vivian was born a French Catholic but according to her employers she died an anti-Catholic, Socialist, Feminist movie critic who hated American movies but loved foreign films.

At age 83, still in Chicago, she slipped on the ice and hit her head and died.

But on the other side of Chicago, alone in the dark, sat 100,000 photo negatives and more than 1,000 rolls of undeveloped film in a public storage facility. When Vivian didn’t show up to pay her storage fees, the contents of her space were turned over to an auction house.

Vivian’s features remind me of Jane Hathaway but her life reminds me of Emily Dickinson. No one knew Emily was a writer until after the funeral when they cleaned out her chest-of-drawers and found more than 1,500 of the finest poems ever written in the English language.

Likewise, the buyer of Vivian’s negatives was stunned by what he found. And though John Maloof has scanned only 30,000 of Vivian’s 100,000 photo negatives, Finding Vivian Maier is currently the featured exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center. A book and a documentary movie are in the works.

As a longtime collector of black-and-white photography (and the publisher of Accidental Magic, a coffee-table photo book,) I believe we’ll soon see Vivian Maier photographs featured at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

From a storage locker in suburban Chicago to the finest auction houses in the world, I believe the second journey of Vivian Maier has only just begun.

Roy H. Williams

PS – FREE at Noon Today,
(Eastern Time) A teleconference on BuzzSnatching, hosted by the one and only Dean Rotbart. This is BIG. Get your free access code by emailing immediately. The teleconference is at noon (Eastern) Monday, January 10, 2011. The complete, 2-day class on BuzzSnatching will be February 2 and 3 at Wizard Academy in Austin. This is going to be good.

See a sampling of Vivian’s photos
by clicking into Indiana Beagle’s rabbit hole.
Each photo clicked will reveal another until you reach the terminus page. – RHW

Comments are closed.