The story of Vivian Maier fascinates people. There have been many well attended exhibitions of her photographs around the globe. The documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” by co-directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel was shown on Netflix and was nominated for an Oscar. A new book “Vivian Maier Developed” by Ann Marks was published in February 2022. There have been countless newsletters and magazine articles, TV interviews, blog posts and videos.
Undoubtedly, her narrative is thought- provoking.
Three themes were highlighted for me:
1.Vivian’s talent was not discovered in her lifetime
Everyone who knew Vivian knew about her love of the camera. There was even an anecdotal story that one of the boys Vivian used to care for was hit by a bus/car (not serious) and Vivian was engrossed in taking pictures of the accident instead of comforting the boy.
Vivian worked for very wealthy families in Chicago and New York who had not only the means to support her but also the networks to promote her. Did the class and/or gender prejudices prevail or did Vivian’s personal characteristics like her difficult character and intense privacy put people off? Maybe it was a lack of curiosity about the person next door, or the darker sides of human nature – the envy of talent and devotion? Gore Vidal said it perfectly “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”
Vivian was looked at but never seen.
2.Definition of success
Vivian never published her photographs but she was constantly filming. It looks like her purpose in life was to document the street life of America and other countries in the 20th century. It seems that success for her was the joy of practising her art, seeing and capturing life with compassionate eyes.
This definition of success sits very uncomfortably with success as defined by society. Just look at the million followers of the Instagram account of Brooklyn Beckham, a young man of “no detectable talent and passion” with “humiliating public appearances” as a photographer or celebrity chef. Somehow aggressive mediocracy is much better at promoting themselves than the real talents.
But practising the art you are passionate about is real success, isn’t it?
3. Devotion and practice
Every craft requires skills developed with time. Vivian spent all her life photographing. She took around 150,000 pictures of the streets in America and other countries around the world. She was a master of her art. But she practised every day. She was getting better and better.
It did not matter what life threw at Vivian – she stayed faithful to her art and passion, to her life’s mission.
Sounds a bit harsh – yes, but there is no mystery in mastery – hard work pays off.