Finding Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier worked as a live-in nanny. Not even those she lived and worked with seemed to know much more about her, other than that she was rarely seen without a camera.

But she stayed with me long after I pressed the off switch. I’d had a glimpse into a peculiar and mysterious personality that got the better of my curiosity. An uncomfortable guest, but not entirely unwelcome. I couldn’t shake off the few snapshots I got of her life from the documentary film. Here was a person so aggressively private that she would often refuse to give her real name, and yet she also seemed to desperately crave relationships. It is clear that people found her unsettling, and I was strangely upset by the fact that it seemed she had struggled to maintain relationships with much consistency.

It doesn’t take more than a quick flick through some of the thousands upon thousands of photos she took over her lifetime (you can have a look at them here) to see that there was much more to her than she ever let on to those who knew her. They are strangely intimate. The contrast between the honest rawness of her photographs and how secretive she was about herself makes me uncomfortable the more I look. It is as if I am a trespasser in a secret part of her world, a part that she was determined to keep people out of.

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What struck me most wasn’t how incredible her photographs are (though that is definitely true). It was how she could have such a prolific talent and yet not a single person around her realised it. How she could live in such proximity to so many people and yet it turned out that nobody really knew her at all.

I think the reason I was so drawn to her is that she highlighted a failure I try to ignore and justify in myself. I am so often impatient with people, so often unwilling to put in the time to really get to know people, so often scared of opening doors to friendships that might end up being too much effort. If someone isn’t interesting me or making me feel comfortable, I often avoid pursuing spending time with them. I could feel outraged that nobody around Vivian made an effort to befriend her, but secretly knew that I would have most likely done the same.

The belongings she hoarded and left behind, conversations remembered by acquaintances and the families she lived with, interactions she had with others – they only open up a small indirect window into Vivian’s world, like looking through frosted glass. Trying to understand her from these is like gathering the torn off edges of a piece of artwork and having to guess the picture it held inside. There are glaringly painful omissions. Can we ever ‘find’ Vivian Maier from things she has left behind? Or have we missed our chance?

Will we one day find ourselves asking questions about our friends and neighbours that will forever be unanswered? Will other people be left answering questions about us, because we never let our guard down?

Vivian Maier was a nanny. A nanny who secretly took over 100,000 incredible photographs and kept them hidden, unprinted, in storage lockers. A nanny whose work was discovered in 2007 at an auction house, and is now generally considered to be among the top street photographers of the 20th century. And nobody she knew had a clue.

Everyone – even those we’ve secretly labelled ‘awkward’ or ‘weird’ – has their own story, if only we’d give them the opportunity to tell it.

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