I have just seen the movie Finding Vivian Maier. Vivian Maier was a nanny and housekeeper. She was a very guarded person who collected things and kept them. Trinkets, buttons, receipts, transfers. Newspapers, piles and piles of newspapers. And photographs.
Not other people’s photographs. Hers. Always, everywhere, she had her camera slung around her neck. Taking her young charges out for walks, or out on the street by herself, she would take pictures. People. People in places. People in moods. People with things, people doing things, people looking at her. She used – for her younger years, up to about age 50 – a twin-lens Rolleiflex, a nice camera and perfect for taking pictures of strangers on the street, because it hung low, and you looked down at the ground glass screen. It was not up at your eye level. It was not an obvious ocular prosthetic. Looking up, it gave majesty, and it looked at the lowly at their level. And the shutter was quiet. So she could walk up, stop, take, go.
Look at her photos. Look at them. Give them your attention. You can see many of them on the website John Maloof made for them.
John Maloof is the man who made the film. He is the man who bought her photos. Her negatives. Her hundred thousand negatives and transparencies. Her hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film. You must pay to develop, and she did not have a lot of money. It was all in boxes, boxes stored with all the other boxes of her things. No one had seen them. Almost no one: a few photo processors. This great photographic genius – I have thought so since I first saw her work a couple of years ago, and many others who have seen it agree – did not show her pictures. For many of them, she did not show them even to herself. She took.
She took attention. She did not pay attention. For her, attention was something that took. She did not want other people’s attention; she did not like the idea that anyone might see into her room. She kept the door locked, kept her life guarded. Gave false names to stores she shopped at. She did think of having her pictures printed by a processer in the small town in France where she grew up, but she was in America and it didn’t happen. Perhaps she didn’t talk much to processers in Chicago or New York, the cities where she lived, because that would have come with a risk of its actually happening. Oh, she printed a few, but not a lot. She accumulated and did not let go. Stacks of hundreds of newspapers. Tchotchkes, receipts, transfers, hats, the little things of life. The thousand items and moments that pass our eyes. Most of us discard them, or file them into the far cabinets of our memories where they simply age unlooked at and inaccessible. Vivian Maier kept them. She kept them, all these moments of attention. She pressed the shutter release and she advanced the film. And she put them away. Not into the little corners of her mind, or not just there. Into boxes.
When you look at her work, it is attention, a soft flick of the shutter at a time. Every person in a photo is the centre of its attention. The world is a performance, every moment of it is people performing themselves, and Vivian Maier attended it. The attainments, the attempts, the attenuations. The photos find the human. There is a tenderness. And a tension, a tension of attention. Her camera so low-slung, looking but not looking like looking. Some subjects felt the pull, felt that when she was taking the picture she was taking from them. Others were glad to give, because her attention gave to them. She was paying them attention. Even if that was not her intention. She was there to take, and keep, and not let go.
John Maloof – the filmmaker, the man who bought her photographs – describes himself as the sort of person who can spot a thing of value at a distance. He has a history of buying at flea markets and auctions. Things cross his attention, and something sometimes attracts. He has bought unclaimed storage lockers and found things of value, and he has tossed out negatives by the boxfull. When he was working on a project for which he needed historical pictures, he went to an auction near where he lived, and for a few hundred dollars he got thousands of negatives taken by someone unknown to him. They turned out not to be what he needed for his project, but they caught his attention and held it. He had to find out who the artist was.
And he found out that she had died, only just. Leaving no family, no heirs. When a person dies, it is, as Laurie Anderson has said, like a whole library has burned down. All those moments, all the perfect things that pass the eyes, the crossings and stops of day-to-day existence, a myriad million perfect flowers of time and space and emotion, all like rain in the rain, now running to the gutter. But Vivian Maier’s moments, so many of them, so perfectly framed, so perfectly composed, were not running away. They were pressed flat in perfect flakes, ready to be flicked through again. Attention taken, attention kept, attention available for your attention, unattenuated.
Your attention is your attention, of course. Your eyes are not mirrors. They are hands of the mind that reach out and grab what the mind wants; they are fingers that stroke reality, and tongues that taste it. They stretch out towards what they want, they extend you towards it: ad+tendere, ‘stretch to’, source of attend, source of attention. The reaching eyes mould life as they grasp it, and they select what they will seize. You keep what you want. So did Vivian Maier. She didn’t keep every last sixtieth of a second of her life. Just the moments she wanted. Seen her way, judged her way, framed her way.
The people she knew knew little about her. They might know her for a decade and yet not know what family she had, if any, or where she was from. She had that slight French accent, Americanized but perceptible. I listened – she made recordings of herself, and occasional movies of her with the children she cared for – and I thought, perhaps near the German border. Alsace? Different people who had spoken to her had different opinions. One whom she had nannied was quite sure she was French: the intonation in particular was characteristic. Another, who met her when she was at a university language lab, was entirely sure she was not French, the accent was a put-on. He had a PhD in linguistics and had done a thesis on vowel length in French and her vowels were not French vowels. He knew. He was paying attention.
To one thing. Vowel length. And which kind of French did he study, I wondered? So many dialects. Not all the same. But he was paying – or taking – his kind of attention.
In fact, she was born in New York City.
And spent much of her childhood with her mother in a small village in the French alps near the border. The Italian border. Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur.
And moved back to the US as a young adult.
She took many pictures in France, especially when she returned there as an adult for visits. It was unusual. Normal people would take pictures at first communion and at weddings. She was taking pictures of all sorts of people all the time. It was taking something. They were not sure what to make of her. But they tolerated her attention.
And now John Maloof has brought back her photos of them, and hung them on the wall, and they can see again how their village was, how they were if they’re old enough; they have those moments of attention back. It was taken, but it is paying back. Or forwards.
And this is what Vivan Maier has left. Myriads of flakes of attention, a sixtieth of a second each more or less, pressed flat, taken from their subjects and now waiting to catch your attention and give attention back.