The Mindful Bard – The Vivian Maier Mystery

The Cleansing of the Doors of Perception

Movie:The Vivian Maier Mystery

Director: Jill Nichols

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.
– William Blake

In a time when photography has become so ubiquitous that cameras are an integral part of our cellphones, laptops, and tablet devices, what possessed a small group of investors to drop everything to buy and develop thousands of old photos from the ?fifties and ?sixties, taken by an unknown dour-faced oddball? And what would provoke a jaded art world to sit up and take avid notice?

Vivian Maier was able to capture the universal human essence on film as easily in France, her ancestral home, as in America, where she grew up. Her photos radiate beams of light. Every one begs a question or tells a story, often both. It’s as if Blake’s dictum had been strictly respected; Maier simply saw heaven all around her and all she needed to do to turn it all into art was to point and shoot.

Remarkably, she didn’t often print and scrutinize the results of her work; she simply kept shooting, with an enviable single-mindedness. Where was her ego? And where was the artist’s natural instinct to examine one’s work to find ways to improve it? She was like the singer who waltzes into a studio, does one perfect take, and waltzes out again, never to listen to the recording. Are such artists born perfect?

From a purely technical viewpoint, her success in creating photographic masterpieces owes much to her quickly determining the perfect moment to snap the shutter. This talent may have developed of necessity; she could afford only one roll of 12 frames per day. Today’s photographers would consider this far short of the number of opportunities needed to develop a good body of work, but, again and again, Maier got that perfect shot in one take.

She didn’t use the standard photographer’s standby?the single lens reflex camera?but rather a Rolleiflex box camera, the kind with a viewfinder you have to look down into?as if staring down a chimney in search of Santa. This way she never had to look a subject in the eye.

Now one wonders if this fact, as well as her abrasive nature, her obvious eccentricity, her disagreeable personality, and her solitary lifestyle might have been a foil to keep her photographic subjects from becoming too engaged with her as a person. Being more conspicuous would no doubt have robbed her of some of her freedom and at the very least have sabotaged the realist authenticity of the photos.

As much as outsider art?art by artists who are unschooled and who work outside any established artistic community?is lauded today, the success of such artists is still an anomaly. I grew up in an artist’s community and I remember that every time an art show was planned or a gallery opened the only artists asked to contribute were those who had degrees in fine art and who had shown their work; the merits of the works themselves didn’t seem to be an issue. Maier’s fame, on the other hand, is founded on the actual quality of her work.

Well, not entirely. It has been suggested that the story behind her is a major selling point, but I think the tale of her unusual life is just gravy; the pictures are so good that Maier deserves all the posthumous fame we can throw at her. Would she mind that she was only famous after her death? I doubt it.

The causes of Maier’s deliberate anonymity, in spite of a phenomenal talent, are a bit of a mystery, and one would think that her outsider status may have had something to do with being working class, an autodidact, and a woman. But she worked for a time as a nanny for a woman who was a newspaper photography editor. One who knew many photographers and who could easily have helped launch Maier’s career as a photojournalist. Yet Vivian never once discussed her photographs with her employer.

Most artists would prefer to do what they love and make a lot of money at it, but, given the choice, I think most serious artists would be content to be allowed simply to go on doing what they love. Given the means to do that, they don’t always devote much time or effort to promoting their careers, because the purpose of promoting one’s career is to enable one to go on making art. If you already have the means to make art, the art is what you want to be busy doing.

Still, It’s a little hard to swallow that she made her art, as Joel Meyerowitz puts it in the film, just for herself, even though there is much evidence in her life to support this. It’s possible that she was one of those rare birds that doesn’t need to see herself reflected in the eyes of others, who as an artist has a direct link to that underground stream of genius that feeds the collective unconscious.

Herein lies a lesson for all mindful artists. A difficult life had compelled her, as it does many of us, to choose to devote herself to art as a means of brightening the darkness of her existence. Her emphasis was on maintaining the conditions necessary for the exercise of her creativity, the first of those conditions being an abiding solitude.

Yet, ultimately, this solitude clearly became too heavy for her to bear. It makes a person wonder if maybe this unique talent could have been better fostered had she developed a greater sense of personal connection with the humanity she documented.

The Vivian Maier Mystery manifests seven of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing.

1. It’s authentic, original, and delightful;
2. It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence;
3. It stimulates my mind;
4. It’s about attainment of the true self;
5. It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation;
6. It makes me want to be a better artist; and
7. It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.