The link between Vivian Maier and Clark Kent
The posthum fame of the nanny that had a second career in street photography seems to be in everybody’s attention currently. Where – besides the truly mastery nature of her photographs – does this intense public interest come from?
I just returned from watching the documentary and tried to focus on answering that question. Besides the really insightful interviews dealing with Maier’s personality and how her clients and especially their children experienced the making of the photographic masterpieces that are included in Maier’s body of work, I came across two more or less important insights.
One is concerning Maier herself. It is said that her own edits do not really include her best photographs. This is important to see for me personally since I highly value showing edits to friends and photographers I value to kind of calibrate my own edits or edit a little sharper if you like. I also think Maier’s letter to a small photo shop in France was less about getting her prints developed but more about an attempt of getting feedback from a photographer she valued. The documentary states that the owner of that shop in a small town in France produced post cards that she admired quite a lot. Perhaps I’m interpreting a little too much in that, but even if it was true: Maier seems to have succeeded without much – if any at all – feedback of others.
The question concerning the success is a little complex. You have classic photographic masterpieces, a rich vivid body of work. That’s true, but neither the commercial art market nor the photographic community really seems to long for the style of the old masters any more. Even HCB prints weren’t achieving too much attention during the last years of his life. I think Maier’s success is based on her pictures to a big part, but multiplied by her story. It’s almost like the story of a pop culture super heroes. Secret superpowers disguised to fit in the normal society. Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Mystique – they all hide their powers to adapt to society. As street photography enthusiast perhaps we sometimes hope to have some kind of secret super power. Photographic powers that nobody knows about. Sounds strange? Actually, if Vivian Maier thought about her photography like this the current attention and posthume accolade would prove her right.
I enjoyed the documentary a lot, it has a D.I.Y. charme on the surface but is really well done: provoking emotions, entertaining and delivering insights. In addition to people close to Maier we also hear Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark judging her work.
Vivian Maier is a pop cultural phenomenon that is based on her hard photographic work combined with talent and the “super hero qualities” that her contrasting CV produce. A shy outsider with secret superpowers. Clark Kent and Superman, Peter Parker and Spiderman, Raven Darkhölme and Mystique, Vivian Maier the nanny and Vivian Maier the photographic mastermind.