Pushan Basu

Vivian Maier: Out of Focus

Pushan Basu
Vivian Maier: Out of Focus

How are you supposed to write about photography? I don’t just mean how am I expected to, I mean how is it possible? What’s the point? It’s a given that anything I can say has probably been said better than someone else – but I guess what I really mean is that the photograph itself is surely a far better expression than anything I can write about it. Anything I say seems self-indulgent, unnecessary even.

 More to the point - where does Vivian fit into  all this?

Vivian Maier lived an exceptional, secretive, exceptionally-secretive and secretively-exceptional life. She was amongst other things - a hoarder, an outsider, a victim, an abuser, a nanny - a photographer. Not just any-old happy-snapper. She’s now considered to have been one of America’s finest. But no one knew until she died. Like many of us she took photos out and about, capturing anything from sleeping street vendors to shadows and sidewalks but - unlike many of us perhaps should – she kept them to herself. Completely to herself. Almost no one ever saw a single frame. ‘Why is this important? She had a hobby that’s all. It was nerves wot dunnit’ – I don’t know. Maybe. But Maier seems … different.

It was only in 2007 when John Maloof stumbled across a unassuming box of negatives at an auction in Chicago that her work saw the light of day. By the time she’d died, she’d taken over one hundred thousand negatives, left seven hundred reels undeveloped film and several movies on 8mm and 16mm. So what. Undiscovered genius/artist not appreciated in their life time, the story – that story - has been told many times before. Yet to this day Vivian’s remains an unwritten history. She was hardly anything more than a ghost when she was alive. She adopted personas, took various names, put on a fake French accent (despite being born in New York), she had no friends, spoke meaningfully to no one and what’s more she seemed to have come from a family of ghosts. The perfect photographer then.

Each frame hints at the eye behind the lens, a subtle suggestion of response, an awareness that this is an ongoing moment where someone once looked. Vivian accommodated her subjects into her frame through stealth. She was a sneaker. She’d let her subject be themselves and then *click*. There’s an unknowable potential about her encounters. But more about that later …