Vivian Maier and Me

I recently saw the Oscar-nominated documentary Finding Vivian Maier, a fascinating account of a brilliant photographer who kept her talent under a stroller for her entire life. Maier worked as an itinerant nanny, moving from one family to another to take care of children while silently pursuing her art. She would take her tiny charges on outings, most notably along the seedier streets of Chicago, a camera constantly around her neck. While the children played along the way, Maier would snap amazing photographs of the things and people that caught her eye.

The work is extraordinary, one part Diane Arbus, one part Ansel Adams. And apparently she never showed it to a soul.

When Maier died, she left behind thousands of unprinted negatives, hundreds more unprocessed rolls of film. The critical consensus is that if she had been discovered in her lifetime, if she had printed her work and brought it to galleries, she would have been a star.

And who doesn’t want to be a star?

Well, Vivian Maier, for one. But why, the filmmakers ask? Why didn’t she ever bother to get her work out to the world? They try to locate the reason in her personal life (or lack thereof), or to blame it on her clearly troubled mental state. But I think the answer is much simpler than that:

Vivian Maier was interested in the work itself, and only the work.

Maier epitomizes the concept of art for art’s sake. You can’t say that she did it for herself, because she hardly printed any of it. It wasn’t as if she were sitting in her attic room gazing for hours upon the fruits of her labor. The fruits of her labor were pretty much rolled up on untouched strips of celluloid inside plastic tubes. (For those of you who have never used anything but a digital camera, just trust me: that’s what we did way back in the 20th century.)

I saw Finding Vivian Maier in the midst of a funk of my own. For weeks now, I’ve been alternately depressed and anxious, and it wasn’t until I saw this film that I understood why.

The simple fact is that the thing that makes me happiest is writing. Doing the work. And that hasn’t been my priority lately. Instead of doing the real work of writing, I’ve been focused on selling. My latest novel is ready to be sent off—out into the world, where Vivian’s photographs never went until her death.   Instead of writing, I’ve been compiling lists of agents and editors, networking with writer friends, composing letters to strangers, imagining a marketing campaign, reducing years of work to an elevator pitch.

Making art is a joy. Painful at times, but only because it gets to the heart of life, because you go to those dark places to dig up something important, something you can then gloss to a shine. For the most part, the act of creation is a peak experience. Selling your art is a pain in the ass.

So Vivian Maier spent her life with a camera around her neck. She framed the world through a lens and saw beauty in it. And there was so much to see. Readying it for the world would only have distracted her from the work itself, from the thing that gave her life meaning. Maybe, as the filmmakers suggest, she didn’t have the constitution for it. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

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