If No One Sees It, Is it Still Art? On Finding Vivian Maier

May 29, 2014 | 4 books mentioned 10 5 min read


The documentary Finding Vivian Maier recently joined the burgeoning conversation about its titular subject, a reclusive Chicago nanny whose collection of street photography was discovered at a storage auction shortly before her death in the form of thousands of undeveloped rolls of film. John Maloof, the lucky man who bought her negatives, started developing and sharing the photos on Flickr. Bolstered by the positive response, he applied for an exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center that immediately became, as I recall, the only thing to talk about at brunch in spring 2011.

Since then, the critical attention, reputation, and mystery of Vivian Maier has only grown, with some calling her one of the greatest street photographers of the 20th century. All of her known work is owned either by Maloof or Jeffrey Goldstein, another Chicago collector, both of whom work full-time managing their collections. There have been three books, with a fourth coming this fall, two documentaries, at least one feature film in pre-production, and exhibitions all over the world.

Born in 1926, Maier grew up in New York and France before moving to Chicago in 1956, where she lived until her death in 2009. For most of that time she worked as a nanny for a long string of local families (including, for a short time, Phil Donohue’s). When interviewed for the documentary, her former employers and charges elaborate on the twin pillars of her posthumous reputation: she was always taking pictures, and she was a little crazy.

Some stick with “eccentric” and a few are more comfortable suggesting mental illness — especially those who knew her later in her life — but the emerging picture of a woman who insisted on padlocking her bedroom door, hoarded newspapers, receipts, and movie stubs, and refused to give people her real name helps to explain why someone who was clearly passionate about photography never tried to share her work.

Maloof, who co-directs, narrates, and figures prominently in the documentary, approaches this question for two obvious reasons. The first is that the enigma of Vivian Maier and her work is indeed fascinating. The second is to assure the viewer — or himself, as someone who now makes a nice livelihood off the photos she never shared — that he would have had her blessing.

In his review of the film, Anthony Lane took umbrage with one of Maloof’s early takes to camera, in which he asks, stupefied, “Why is a nanny taking all these photos?” The better question, and the question that more accurately reflects Maloof’s obviously high opinion of Maier, is: Why is someone who takes so many photos a nanny? Why didn’t she ever develop her film? There is evidence that she knew she was a good photographer, was proud of her talent, but none that she attempted to share it or have it critiqued.

It’s possible that the right answer is the prosaic one — that she was a single woman working as a nanny and no one would have paid attention. Or it may be that what can mildly be described as her control issues made sharing her work seem unappealing. Maloof’s position — and again, it could be a self-justifying one — is that her work is meant to be shared, that great art deserves recognition regardless of Maier’s intentions. It seems possible to me that Maier was genuinely ambivalent about whether her photography was ever appreciated.

coverIt left me thinking about the role that recognition plays in an artistic life. Describing some of Maier’s employers that appeared in the film, Lane writes: “none can quite believe that art, of a serious nature, was going on under their noses.” No better proof of our capacity to ignore the art under our noses is needed than 20 Feet from Stardom, another recent documentary, this one about back-up singers.

That film introduces about a dozen women who have worked as back-up singers at various times since the 1960s — some quit when it became clear they wouldn’t rise any higher, some are still trying to break through, and some have made decades-long careers of singing back-up. The stories in 20 Feet from Stardom are presented with much less narrative bias than Finding Vivian Maier, but the central question that arises in each of them is: if you spend your life artistically, but unnoticed, is it enough?

Each of the singers is tremendously talented. They’re touted as peers to Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, and the likes of Sting, Mick Jagger, and Bette Midler appear in the film testifying to their greatness. They all aspire(d) to solo careers, and have attempted them to varying degrees of success. Their inability to make it big is attributed to timing, luck, and sometimes a lack of the killer instinct, but never to a lack of talent.

Their stories are full of both immense gratitude and extreme disappointment. Their unconditional love for music permeates the film, and it’s hard to feel too sorry for someone whose safety net is touring with The Rolling Stones. (One of the film’s subjects, Lisa Fischbeck, has a solo Grammy, another, Darlene Love was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, after the film came out, got to sing her acceptance speech at the Oscars.) And yet, the source of disappointment is right there in the title — they are literally so close, steps away from their dream. Like Vivian, they worked and worked and it didn’t make them famous, but unlike Vivian, they were hoping it would.

coverI remember reading an interview with Jonathan Safran Foer a few years ago about the value of art that no one sees. Imagine my delight when I searched for it and realized he was talking about another documentary I could watch — Rivers and Tides about the artist Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy makes art in the natural world out of natural materials — in the film he makes a sculpture out of ice and stone that melts when the sun comes up, and an igloo-like structure out of branches in a river bed that floats away when the tide changes. Although he photographs his work, the physical art that he creates generally disappears in a matter of days, sometimes hours, often before anyone besides himself has seen it.

But, Goldsworthy says, “it doesn’t feel at all like destruction.” For him, the artwork is not just the finished, viewed object, but the process of interacting with the natural world to create something and then letting that natural world take it away. “I haven’t simply made the piece to be destroyed by the sea. The work has been given to the sea as a gift, and the sea has taken the work and made more of it than I could have ever hoped for.”

coverFor very different reasons for each of these artists, the practice of their craft looms larger than recognition of it. Watching these films reminded me of a scene in Sister Act 2, obviously, in which Whoopi Goldberg’s character is encouraging Lauryn Hill’s character to nurture her singing talent. She says, “If you wake up in the morning and you can’t think of anything but singing first, then you’re supposed to be a singer, girl.”* Or as Fischbeck says in 20 Feet from Stardom, “Some people will do anything to get famous. I just want to sing.”

By Sister Act 2 standards, Maier, Goldsworthy, Fischbeck, and Love are all artists, but these films looks at their complicated relationships to artistic recognition. Despite the accomplishment denoted in its title, Finding Vivian Maier has the murkiest picture of its subject. Making a documentary about a secretive person after her death means having to make much of very few details, and there were times I felt uncomfortable with the way the film went digging for secrets that Maier had worked so hard to keep, in the name of contextualizing her art.

There’s a small Vivian Maier exhibit at the Chicago Public Library this summer, and a few days after I saw the film I went to see her photos there. My visit felt completist — a little extra credit on top of the documentary — but also repentant, as if after watching her life being dissected I needed to shift things back to her terms, let her decide what to put in the frame and what to exclude, and let her hide behind the camera again.


* I was gratified when I looked this up to realize that she was paraphrasing Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet: “If, when you wake up in the morning, you can think of nothing but writing…then you are a writer.”

is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.


  1. Great piece. It takes real courage to write (or photograph, or do anything creative, for that matter) for the bottom drawer.

  2. I have run a website for iPhone photography for four-and-a-half years—published over 22,000 curated images so far—and I have witnessed many times the terror new, untrained, but passionate and talented, artists feel when putting their work out for public display the first time. In this era, photographers have many places to share their work and, especially, find support and inspiration. Vivian Maier had none of that: she was alone, obsessed, and, as mentioned, a little crazy. I don’t think she had the slightest idea how to walk into a gallery to show her work to someone, nor the confidence.
    As far as the back-up singers in 20 Feet To Stardom go, watch the movie again. You will notice that, with the exception of Darlene Love, whose career as a lead singer was derailed by Phil Spector, all of the singers closed their eyes when they stepped out in front, effectively shutting off the emotional connection with the audience, watching a movie inside their heads no one else could see as they sang. That is not to say that they didn’t have amazing instruments in their voices and musical talent, but the move out front was beyond their inner abilities and resources, such as confidence.

  3. Really enjoyed the comments as well, especially the last observations by Mr. Bronson. Just a couple of random thoughts:

    a.) Lots to ponder related to the appropriateness of showing work the creator kept hidden. Reminds me of story (is it true or just legend?). Rimbaud asked that his poems be burned (see below). Does the intent of the one who brings the work to light have any significance? I imagine one could bring hidden work to light with “bad intent” (greed? fame-seeking?) but still create works of beauty.

    b.) How about the relation between a novel written in another language and the translated version. Years ago, there was a fascinating article in US Today about two translations of Gogol’s Dead Souls. The end products had were significantly different.

    c.) Mr. Knox, I thought your observations on Ms. Bronson were just lovely. My heart aches for her. I think it is so easy to underestimate the sheer, bullheaded courage it can take to share your creations the world. Add in mental or emotional fragility (which can impair the ability to effectively process, organize, network, and win supporters) lack of wealth, working class status, and I think it is more likely a miracle that some art ever does make it to the public eye than that it remains hidden. I still blush when I remember the teasing from friends and family about my “artsy fartsy” pretentions and my dismissal as someone who could never be a “real poet.” because I was so “low class.” There is still a little green toad in the back of my brain always ready to whisper that I’m not “really” a poet/essayist/writer whenever I get up the guts to go to an open mic, submit something, etc. and fighting off the little bastard is a constant battle!

    Looking forward to watching this film. One great thing about greater access to Netflix, “on demand/same day as theatres” cable is that more people will watch this. Otherwise, it would show briefly in independent theatres or festivals then disappear.

    Moe Murph
    Still Has Lots Of Sloppy Manuscripts In Drawers (See Below)

    To be totally self-indulgent, below some snippets of song lyrics of mine about Mr. Rimbaud. He has quit writing poems and become an African trader in ivory and guns. Was inspired by reading a collection of his letters called “I Promise To Be Good.” Reference in lyrics to urge to hide/burn poems — idea that the words never do justice to the initial creative vision.


    Ice poems
    Melting in the sun
    Metal dust
    Scattering of bone
    Iron bed
    Pillow of Stone



    I was an arrow shot, a violin at play
    Abracadabric ship that sailed a silver bay
    Burn my words, they just get in the way


  4. Moe, is that USA Today article on the Gogol translations available online anywhere?

  5. Hello, Chris Marshall,

    I wasn’t able to pull it up, will see if I can hunt up the (real, actual paper) clip for the exact information.

    Best regards,

    Moe Murph

  6. @Chris Marshall (“Finding Vivian Maier”) — Your request for information.

    In the deepest recesses of my storage unit, I found Gogol references you asked about this past June 6th. Was not actually US Today, I now can’t figure out where my notes came from, but they were from an article by Mr. Richared Lourie called “Schemers and Dreamers” and I think date back to 1996 — all I have are my notes. What I have is related to two “Dead Souls” translations.

    From Lourie:

    a.) Translated by Bernard Guilbert Guerney – Revised by Susanne Fusso (Yale).

    b.) Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Pantheon).

    From my notes, Lourie finds the Guerney translation has more “color and bounce.” He notes, in comparison, that Guerney chooses the more folksy “persnickety” which Peveaer and Volokhonsky render as “exactingness.”

    Finally, went back to my copy, which is the 1942 original translation by Bernard Guibert Guerney. Got ahold of it in old book store. By chance, in “The New Lifetime Reading Plan” (4th Ed) – Clifton Faddiman comes out swinging for the Guerney translation, noting:

    “I cannot command the original, but nonetheless dare to recommend one translation and one only. It is by [Guerney[. It just sounds right. The others have a stiffness foreign, I am told, to Gogols’s spirit.”

    Happy Reading!

    Moe Murph
    (Fears As Yet to Attempt The Cyrillic Alphabet But Hasn’t Ruled It Out)

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