Ghent expo shares story of eccentric photographer

Summary

An exhibition and film about the work of American nanny Vivian Maier are on show now at Ghent’s Saint Peter’s Abbey

Detective story

Framed as Mary Poppins with a Rolleiflex camera instead of an umbrella, American photographer Vivian Maier (1926-2009) is often considered an eccentric before a fully fledged artist. Maier, who worked as a nanny, has recently caught the imagination of the public and art professionals alike, and an exhibition of her work is now on show in Ghent.

Part of Maier’s remarkable story is told in the documentary Finding Vivian Maier (2013), directed by Charlie Siskel and John Maloof and recently released on DVD here. Largely set up as a detective story, Finding Vivian Maier recounts how Maloof, a young historian from Chicago, in 2007 accidentally stumbled upon a box of Maier’s undeveloped photo negatives at an auction while working on another project.

As in many great detective stories, the obsession of the main character – which in large parts of Finding Vivian Maier is Maloof rather than Maier – sinks its claws into the narrative only after the subject of interest is initially shrugged off.

Maloof gradually became intrigued by Maier’s inscrutable life and the vast number of photographs she took, mainly in the 1950s and ’60s , but never actually made public or even developed from the negatives.

Unknown gems

Maloof’s fascination – after his first haphazard purchase, he obtained the lion’s share of Maier’s photographs and collected other personal belongings – catapulted her hitherto unknown gems into the public sphere. A new star was born. Even if Maier herself, says an interviewee in the film, would probably have disagreed with the way her photographs have been made public now. During her life, she seemed far more interested in the practice of photography than in the finished print.

But her work undeniably deserves to be seen. Maier had a keen eye for observations of daily life in the city centres she commuted to and the suburban areas she worked in. The representative sample on show in Saint Peter’s Abbey in Ghent proves that the photographer whose self-portraits demonstrate an often oddly dressed, tall woman with a serious gaze had great wit to go with her highly developed sense for photographing people on the fringes of society, and for capturing the cracks in the white picket-fence lives.

Finding Vivian Maier and the BBC documentary Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?, which can also be seen at the abbey, raise questions about dealings in the art business and the wishes of artists after their death.

In the still somewhat murky succession of events that constitute her discovery, it remains tragic that while all this happened, Maier lived in dire circumstances – her possessions were being auctioned because she could no longer afford their storage – and fell ill.

Ultimately, Maier’s extensive body of work doesn’t deserve to be discarded as a nanny’s side project. That would belittle both her profession and the quality of her photographs.

Finding Vivian Maier is distributed by A-film; Vivian Maier. The Discovery of a Photographer is at Sint-Pieter’s Abbey, 9 Sint-Pietersplein, Ghent until 17 August