4 August 2014

Finding Vivien Maier 1

The cliché of the suffering artist, locked away in their room, unappreciated. We love it don’t we? The art critic, Rene Ricard, describes it so well in the 1981 essay he wrote about Jean-Michel Basquiat, entitled ‘The Radiant Child’, where he first coins the term, ‘The Van Gogh Boat’.

“Everybody wants to get on the Van Gogh Boat. There is no trip so horrible that someone won’t take it. Nobody wants to miss the Van Gogh Boat. The idea of the unrecognized genius slaving away in a garret is a deliciously foolish one. We must credit the life of Vincent van Gogh for really sending that myth into orbit.”

We buy into stereotypes, foolishly at times. Yet deep down we know that in this day and age it is so rare for a true talent not to be uncovered. So what is so remarkable about Vivian Maier? Well, it’s how little interests she shows towards the fame and fortune of artists like Van Gogh. Vivian kept her passion for photography largely unseen from the world, as interviews with friends and former employers reveal what a secretive individual she was.

John Maloof, director of Finding Vivian Maier, bought a box full of her negatives for around $400 at a Chicago auction back in 2007. Since then John has documented, archived, and collected Vivian’s work, exposing her to the world. Apposing what friends portray as Vivian’s reticent nature. Maloof’s benevolence towards Maier is an intriguing sub plot to this documentary. However you do really have to swagger through the self-indulgence in which Maloof narrates his account to feel any remote respect for what he’s achieved. He asks us though, smugly, “Why do we take photos?” Answering, “If it’s not for our selves and others to see and appreciate, then why is it?”

Focusing back on Vivian herself, this documentary provides a worrying insight to her detriment. Certain eccentricities such as talking in a questionable French accent, and obsessively hoarding over newspapers lead us to question Maier’s mental health. However her passion and devotion to documenting the world around her demonstrates a true voyeurism and empowering sentiment. Maier’s trademark Rolleiflex portraits, normally shot from a low viewpoint, have captured a host of spellbinding images of American life during the second half of the twentieth century, making her one of the most notorious and talked about street photographers today.

Finding Vivian Maier is a pleasant testament to the artist and is definitely worth a watch, if only to familiarise yourself with her comic eye, and ability to get close to an array of fascinating individuals. Yet I do speculate whether Maloof has forced Maier to take a horrible trip on the Van Gogh boat, or done something truly wonderful by sharing her photographic talents with the rest of the world?

Open Eye Gallery’s Director Lorenzo Fusi will present a short lecture on Vivian Maier’s photographic practice before the screening on Tuesday 5 August.


Ashleigh Owen's website is ashleighowen.com


Tickets for the special Discover Tuesday screening of Finding Vivian Maier, introduced my Lorenzo Fusi are available now from the Box Office, online and by phone on 0871 902 5737