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.
It 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.
I 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.”
For 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.”
Last month, The Millions entered the e-book publishing business with Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever. Staff writer Mark O’Connell has hitherto produced delightful work on, among other things, an obscure video game enthusiast named Martin Amis and “the Proust of pencil sharpeners.” In Epic Fail, he traces the origins of viral fame to a pre-Internet age, squiring the reader effortlessly from Shakespeare to the Insane Clown Posse. Mark was kind enough to correspond with me for a Millions Conversation about his new book and early life as a middle school film critic.
Lydia: You and I are colleagues who have never met but maintain an infrequent friendly chatting over the Twitter and the emails. It’s enough distance that I didn’t know this project was in the works until C. Max Magee’s general announcement to the group, but close enough that upon hearing the news I felt the special kind of chuffed you only feel over a friend’s achievement. Epic Fail has the distinction of bringing The Millions into a new phase of its existence, as a purveyor of e-books, which is already very exciting. And then I read Epic Fail and felt even more chuffed. I really enjoyed it.
So now that I’ve buttered you up, I want to ask you about how this endeavor came about. Was this something you were working as a Millions or other piece that took on a life of its own? How long have you been thinking about the project? Our own Garth Risk Hallberg was your editor, I believe. When did he come on board?
Mark: Actually, I have to think quite hard to formulate a coherent answer to the straightforward question of how it came about. Max got in touch early last year, February or March I think, to say that he’d been talking to Byliner about partnering on an e-book series, and to ask whether I had any ideas I thought might work for such a piece. I’d read something somewhere about this Irish schoolteacher called Amanda McKittrick Ros, who’d become widely known around the turn of the 20th century as the worst novelist of all time. I was fascinated not so much by the novels themselves – which are truly atrocious, obviously, but mostly just incredibly dull to read – as by the ironic way they were celebrated by this cultural elite in London and Oxford – C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and Aldous Huxley and all those guys. I thought this was really interesting in itself, but also felt that it was a kind of fame or notoriety that we tend to think of as more or less uniquely contemporary. So I thought maybe this eccentric old Irish schoolteacher and amateur novelist might provide sort of a sneaky back door into a discussion of Internet culture, and of the whole ostensibly contemporary phenomenon of the Epic Fail. I’d been thinking about Ros as a possible topic for quite a while, but then this thing, because of the scope and length that the e-book allowed for, forced me to actually try and connect her to some wider and more contemporary cultural currents.
Garth came on board very early on – at the outline stage, in fact. He was really instrumental in helping to broaden it out conceptually in the beginning; and then, when it came to writing the thing, in sharpening actual arguments, and sort of forcing me to come out into the open and say things in a very unequivocal way. Like yourself, I come from an academic background, where things like concision and having a solid “takeaway” are, or are supposed to be, paramount; but I think, constitutionally, I’m the type of writer who only figures out what I’m trying to say – or if indeed I have anything to say at all – by blindly writing my way into it. I’m not naturally a bottom-line type of person who goes in with an argument in mind, is what I think I might be saying here (see?), but Garth really stepped in and sort of forced me to be that when I needed to be.
Lydia: That was what I found most enlightening about the essay — in terms of information I did not have before — that these literary lights of the early twentieth century went into ironic ecstasies over Amanda McKittrick Ros, held readings, formed clubs. I knew that they were elitist dicks (not a value statement) but it’s funny to think that they did something so, I guess, unproductive and time-wastey, as read these awful, awful novels, like looking at lots of YouTube videos (shouldn’t C.S. Lewis have been communing with the Lord?). But then, that’s one takeaway of Epic Fail — the thing with Ros and all the Worst Thing Evers to have followed, is that they either rise into some ethereal, sublime level of badness, or are so unheimlich in their nearness to regular mediocrity (or a combination of both), that it makes them special. (I loved, incidentally, your point about the virulent, absurd badness that actually infects the entirety of literature and art — let’s come back to that.)
I see now there are two untrue things about my first sentence above, the first being that this was the best new information I gleaned from this piece. Because that was actually the song “Miracles,” and also the song “Friday,” which I had in fact made it this far without ever hearing in its entirety. I had sort of willfully not clicked on it, because I kept seeing it everywhere and I guess that was my way of keeping my own ironic distance. So, um, thank you for those things. You do realize you kind of wrote a hypertext book, because you can’t read it and not go digging for, er, miracles, on the internet?
And, truly, the most enlightening thing was learning about Mark O’Connell’s rap phase. Although you’re a tease — first you talk about washing the lemon juice from your face (buy the book, get the reference) and lifting the veil from your readers’ eyes, then you talk about the Irish rap scene, and I was in a fever of anticipation that the next thing coming was the revelation that you had done your own Worst Thing Ever, and that it was a rap, and that possibly there were bootleg tapes about. But it turns out that the secret shame — which was a transcendent bit of prose, incidentally — is actually that you once did something really dickish yourself to an aspiring rapper. A different kind of worst thing ever.
In the beginning of the piece, your compare Cecilia Jimenez, the perpetrator of the Ecce Homo Christ fresco fiasco, to your grandmother, and you invoke the term “mortify” in the Catholic sense. Another Catholic word occurred to me when I got to this last bit of the book: penance. Sorry in advance for sounding like Geraldo, but had this been eating away Was your ebook, dare I say, an exorcism?
Mark: I can’t believe you’d never actually heard “Friday.” That is hugely impressive to me. Although I can see how you’d want to avoid that stuff, or just never end up actually giving it the time of day. I don’t think I’ve watched more than a few seconds of Gangnam Style, actually (although that’s a whole other cultural ball of wax, obviously).
That’s interesting what you said about it being a kind of hypertext ebook. I don’t think it really occurred to me when I was writing it, which seems completely idiotic now. But then after I finished it, I wrote this essay about unboxing videos for The Dublin Review, and the editor, Brendan Barrington, pointed out that having it on ink and paper actually made a lot of sense, because if it was online, the temptation for the reader — even if the text itself wasn’t full of links — would be to just keep going away from the actual text to watch the videos being discussed. I wound up putting in a perhaps overly-cute footnote asking readers to just bear with me and watch the videos after finishing the essay, rather than whipping out their iPhones there and then. And then a couple of my friends who read Epic Fail said exactly what you’ve just said: that they kept having to put it down to go online and watch the stuff I was writing about. I suppose that would be even more pronounced if you happen to be reading it on an iPad, where you’re just swiping away the text to check out some awful YouTube video. Maybe a major flaw of the book, in that sense, is that it keeps suggesting things to the reader that are more entertaining than itself.
That’s another thing that never occurred to me at all — that a reader might think that the revelation at the end would be that I myself was a Worst Thing Ever. (Although of course I’ve done embarrassing stuff. Just probably nothing that would be entertaining for anyone who didn’t know me.) But it’s an interesting question, about the idea of penance. It’s a concept I don’t really understand. I didn’t have a Catholic upbringing, so maybe it’s a difficult thing to get your head around if it hasn’t been part of your psycho-cultural make-up. Personally, I didn’t feel any kind of relief from writing about the dickishness you mention. It actually just made me feel really awful about it all over again. In that sense, it’s probably the opposite of penance; my writing about it actually exacerbated my guilt about it. I mean, obviously we’re not exactly talking about an Augustinian level of moral self-disburdening here, but I do think that that’s the sort of niggling, more or less banal guilt that a lot of people walk around with, and that makes them wince when they think about it. Some really shabby thing they did when they were a teenager, or whatever.
But to answer your question about whether the book was an exorcism, the answer, I suppose, would be definitely not. Or at least it would be a spectacularly ineffective exorcism, seeing as I felt more possessed by it after writing about it than before. I just felt it would have been dishonest and sort of morally shifty not to talk about myself, and my own personal complicity in this culture of ridicule, in terms of the context I was writing in. Although I’m not convinced there’s not something morally shifty about it anyway. Writing is a morally shifty thing to be doing, a lot of the time.
What would Geraldo say to that?
Lydia: Well, I didn’t imagine you sitting at your carrel in a hair shirt. But I think the thrust of the book does invite everyone to put on at least a moderately hairy shirt and do a bit of reflection. I confess when I did watch “Friday,” and thought uncharitable thoughts, I was brought a bit low by the gallantry, or I guess basic human decency, you extend to Ms. Black. And while I had hitherto missed the “Friday” phenomenon, I had seen, and laughed the proverbial tits off while seeing, monkey Jesus. I found your comparison of Cecilia Jimenez to your own grandmother, your touching description of the latter as “a constitutionally private, reserved, and serious person,” and your remark that “if something like this were to happen to her, I’m afraid it might literally kill her,” sobering. The dicks of the early twentieth century argued, probably on the way home from their Amanda McKittrick Ros fan club meetings, about whether art could be good without a moral component. And I’m stodgy and I feel that’s the case, so what I perceived as a slight bit of moralizing on your part made the piece resonate with me. But since you have a sense of humor, (number-one most desirable quality in a writer), you don’t try to act as though these things aren’t hilariously bad. You just provide a friendly reminder that the road of the Worst Thing Ever in the technological age is one hundred percent of the time going to lead to a YouTube comment saying “I hope you die/get raped/etc.”
I was probably projecting about the rap stuff. In my experience the only thing that approaches the shame of shabby teenage things done is the shame of ludicrous teenage things written. And when I think about “Friday” and then some of the horrible things I wrote in high school or college, I offer a prayer or thanks to the monkey Jesus that I did not have to bear that particular cross at a time in my development when I would have been constitutionally disinclined to survive sustained mockery.
Having managed to turn your interview into my personal feelings time, let’s go back to Epic Fail. You mentioned Gangnam Style, and I thought of that phenomenon while reading. The same way that truly terrible efforts can, as you write, infect the whole of art with their badness, good writing invites the mind to romp. Epic Fail caused me to spend a Saturday afternoon sort of furiously taxonomizing, trying to sort through the spiritual differential of something like the film The Room, or something that seems well-produced and self-consciously zany (and thus, I think, unexciting) like Gangnam Style, or terrible Eurovision-style songs, or Susan Boyle, or the (brilliant) show Arrested Development. It sounds like faint praise to call something “tidy,” but I really admire how you (with Garth’s careful shepherding, it sounds like) avoided getting bogged down in trying to explain the whole landscape of viral fame, and list all the sort of subspecies and things that are not x but are y and so on. Your examples seemed really exemplary, and the whole effort was very clean.
That said, it’s such a vast field of inquiry, with many tributaries (I think I have like 200 metaphors in here so far). Do you feel finished thinking about it? You said in your last response that you feel more possessed by the subject than before. Would you consider a long-long-form on this topic?
Mark: Can I just start by saying that the phrase “laugh the proverbial tits off” is itself a phrase that makes me laugh the proverbial tits off? But, to swiftly resume an attitude of moral seriousness – before no doubt just as swiftly relinquishing it – your point about things you did as a kid in high school is an important one, I think. Because part of what’s so fascinating and troubling about this stuff is the almost complete randomness of it. You get the sense that this kind of viral celebrity could befall almost anyone. (Which is maybe, actually, another way of thinking about what the term “viral” actually means in that formulation.)
We’ve all done stuff to some extent that could make us a source of amusement to a large number of people. I was just thinking the other day of this notebook I used to keep when I was about eleven or so, where I used to write in little reviews of films I’d watched on video. My sister found it in a drawer a few years back, and it had these hilariously po-faced reviews of movies where I’d give star ratings and list cast members and stuff like that. But the combination of wrongness and priggishness was kind of fantastic. Like there was a review of Glengarry Glen Ross (and I’m laughing just thinking about this) where I took grave umbrage at the unnecessary level of swearing in the film – “the characters seem to use f-words instead of punctuation” – and gave it 2 stars, memorably dismissing it as “a waste of an all-star cast.” And then you turn the page and there’s a five star review of Sister Act 2 that is just enraptured with the whole thing. I mean, if I was an 11 year-old kid nowadays, that would probably be a Tumblr or something, and those reviews could have wound up being a source of amusement to a lot of people outside my family, which would be a whole other story. Like that lady who reviewed an Olive Garden for her local paper last year and briefly became the Internet’s woman of the hour. It’s just very weird how randomly that stuff can happen. She seemed fine with it; she ultimately seemed not to give a rat’s ass, but not all octogenarians would be so cool about something like that happening. I kind of love that woman actually. Her whole reaction was basically “What the hell is wrong with you people? Get back to work.”
Yes, I know what you mean about that taxonomizing urge. (If it weren’t too aggressively meta, the whole human species might have been taxonomized as Homo Taxonomiens.) It was definitely a temptation for me, but I don’t think it would have been all that helpful for the reader. Although I do talk at one point about the difference between “organic” or “free-range” epic fails and genetically engineered weirdness like Tim and Eric and that sort of stuff. I don’t know that I’d want to write a whole book on it, because I feel like I’d like to move on to something else, but you never know. I do seem to be preoccupied by Internet weirdness. That unboxing video essay consumed me for a long time – and to be honest the essay became a sort of cover story for indulging that compulsion – and I’ve just finished writing a thing about ASMR videos for Slate. You’re welcome. But who isn’t fascinated by that stuff, really? (The answer to that rhetorical question is actually, no doubt, lots of normal people.)
Lydia: The juxtaposition of Glengarry Glen Ross and Sister Act 2 in the notebook of Mark O’Connell, aged 11, the toughest critic on the block, is such pure comedy that I think the writers of Arrested Development would really struggle to find something as home-grown and delightful (local, organic, free-range fails, if you will). All the better because this was probably just before (or concurrent with) the moment when, according to your book, you yourself became hip to the joys of “entertaining ineptitude” and found nothing funnier than the vast distance between ambition and execution.
Which brings me to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a part of your book that I found really fascinating. Brutally paraphrasing, Science has proven that the more of an idiot you are, the greater your confidence that you aren’t an idiot. It occurs to me that in a sense being a kid is one sustained exercise in Dunning-Krugerism. In fact, arguably to be a proper kid you need those moments of total unselfconscious and total commitment — it’s hateful to think of a child having to posit his or her movie reviews or, ahem, paeans to exotic cats and cars, in some ironic, self-conscious frame. Once you get to middle and high school and college, where there are strange and multifarious forces at work — your teachers try to nurture your better instincts and squelch your worse ones, while you and your peers spend much of your time trying feel one another up whilst putting one another down — slowly you learn to think about your output (artistic or otherwise) in a different way.
In terms or raw artistic ability, the wheat and the chaff alike have to go through this process of maturation. But your A. M. Ros, your Tommy Wiseau (of The Room), somehow come through it all with a really majestic, unshakable belief in their own ability that certainly exceeds that of people who really make great art. (When I read Epic Fail I was in the middle of re-reading Of Human Bondage — have you read it? — which has a whole section on artistic toils. Everything synced together beautifully at the moment when Philip the protagonist asks a professional painter to look over his work and give an opinion: “Don’t you know if you have talent?” the painter asks, and Philip says, “All my friends know they have talent, but I am aware some of them are mistaken.”)
Okay, so you don’t want to write a book about YouTube comments. I will forgive you. But according to your bio in Epic Fail you have a book on the horizon — about John Banville? Please to explain.
Mark: I have read it, but it was years ago. Actually, it was one of the first bits of “proper/serious” literature I ever really connected with – as in it wasn’t about dragons or aliens or what have you. I don’t remember all that much about it, but I do remember the business with the club foot, and that Mildred girl being a total bitch. (Am I somehow wrong in remembering it this way?) (Ed.: No.) I do remember being really impressed with myself for finishing it, though. I should probably read it again, through not-15-year-old eyes. I almost certainly didn’t get it at all. But yeah, the Dunning-Krueger effect is a good one, isn’t it? The ironic thing about it, of course, is how primed for misuse it seems to be. The last people who would ever see it applying to themselves are probably the people most affected by it. It’s a usefully scientific-seeming way of explaining why other people are such idiots. Why “The best lack all conviction while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”, as Yeats put (it in a context so different as to make even bringing it up here wildly inappropriate). I do think most writers – most people, really – could probably do with a touch of the William McGonagall or Amanda McKittrick Ros or Tommy Wiseau unshakable self-belief. If you could somehow combine that with actual talent, you could do a very brisk artistic trade. That’s possibly some kind of formula for genius: major talent combined with the self-belief that’s more often associated with talentlessness.
I do have a book on Banville on the horizon. Last I heard it’s due to come out in July or thereabouts. It’s based on my PhD thesis, which I finished a couple of years ago now. It looks at Banville’s novels from the point of view of various psychoanalytic understandings of what narcissism means. It sounds quite narrow, but narcissism is so variously and broadly interpreted by theorists from Freud onwards that it’s actually become almost like a kind of synonym for psychoanalysis itself. Even though it contains no quips about Trapped in the Closet, it will nonetheless be tremendous fun to read, I assure you.
Lydia: Well, two things are clear. Number one, I must pray for “major talent combined with the self-belief that’s more often associated with talentlessness.” Number two, I must read John Banville.
Mark, I can’t thank you enough for chatting with me about yourself and your wonderful book. Any parting thoughts or, better yet, YouTube videos?
Mark: It’s unacceptable that you haven’t read Banville. That needs to be redressed straight away. Unfortunately none of his books are set in Turkey, but there are parts of The Book of Evidence and Shroud that are set in a kind of warped version of San Francisco, if that’s any good to you.
Thanks for the back-and-forth, Lydia. It was a lot of fun. Like a proper old-fashioned epistolary set-up. Plus this whole thing has been a textbook example of vertical integration, when you think about it.
Lydia: I hate that I just had to google vertical integration, but am also grateful to now know what that means. Ye olde one-stoppe shoppe, that’s us.