photo courtesy Bijou Film Center
Street photographer Vivian Maier takes a selfie.
Finding Vivian Maier is brought to you by the Byrd, Candela Books + Gallery, the VCUarts Department of Photography and Film, and the Bijou Film Center. And there’s a party afterward with music provided by the Chez Roue, fronted by saxophonist Roger Carroll in his penultimate performance prior to his departure for Chicago — the city whose street life Maier documented. This event is a fundraiser both for the Byrd and the Bijou.
But first, the story so far.
Imagine you’re John Maloof, a Chicago neighborhood history enthusiast, Realtor, and president of the Northwest Chicago Historical Society. You are putting together a book about Portage Park, the community you live in. You are fascinated by old objects and the stories that may emanate from them, if you know how to read them. You fortuitously reside across the street from an auction house, and one day in 2005 you bid on a trunk and for $380, it’s yours. You find inside a huge collection of photographs, negatives, personal documents and other ephemera — even shoes — that appear to date from the 1950s and afterward.
You don’t at first know what it is you’ve gotten. You’re not an art historian, much less a photographer, and this is like a hay bale that’s fallen from the barn loft onto your head. You go on first to complete that Portage Park book, then apply yourself to the trunk of mysteries. As Los Angeles Times writer Caroline A. Miranda wrote, it’s a story that's “part Storage Wars, part Antiques Road Show." And one might throw in Hoarders while we're at it.
Then, you scan some of the prints. You start a blog. You make queries. And what you’ve found is the artistic legacy of one Vivian Maier.
She turns out to have been a fantastic street photographer, but something of a hermit, who supported herself as a nanny — an eccentric shutterbug Mary Poppins, though without the cheer and singing and the happy ending. But, there is nonetheless something magical about all those images, how close she was able to get to her subjects and their variety. By now, as some stories do, Vivian has possessed you. You study photography and take it up. And you recover, among other things, 100,000 to 150,000 negatives, more than 3,000 prints, hundreds of rolls of 8 mm and 16 mm home movies and even audio tapes. Another collector, Jeff Goldstein, salvages other elements. Like yanking on kudzu, the more you pull, the more tantalizing clues of her life and work emerge. And it’s quite a story that ultimately becomes a documentary film directed by you and Charlie Siskel (nephew of the late film critic, Gene Siskel) and is nominated this year for an Academy Award. Interesting, the documentary Life Itself, about Siskel's on-TV co-critic and newspaper rival, Roger Ebert, didn't get nominated.
This kind of tale would interest any number of Richmonders, who are rather fond of their neighborhood history, and live in a town of antiquarians, photographers and movie goers.
Enter James Parrish and Terry Rea, who as filmmaker Jonas Mekas self-described, are “raving maniacs of the cinema.” They understand obsession – cinematic, that is. They’ve teamed together to organize the Bijou Film Center that would show films like this one that aren’t likely to arrive on most other screens here.
Parrish, in conversation with Gordon Stettinius, a photographer and director of the Candela Gallery, considered how the film might connect with Richmond and with Stettinius’ mission.
Parrish at first wanted to follow up the successful A Hard Day's Night at the Byrd with Finding Vivian Maier at a smaller venue. But finding the right place proved elusive and, much like the luck of Maloof and the trunk, the Byrd is available a week before the Academy Awards presentation and, also, a week ahead of the annual 1708 Gallery auction into which Stettinius will present a Maier print.
In addition, Stettinius, at the aptly named Portrait House across the street from the Byrd, prior to the film (4:30 to 6:30 p.m.), will have a portfolio of 11 silver gelatin Maier prints. Stettinius will speak before the film and participate in a Q&A afterward. He’s suited to the task, given his background, and that not along ago, he had a a parallel experience to Maloof in that he was introduced to the trove of photographer Gita Lenz.
The circumstances of his archiving Lenz’s work and how it happened differs from Maloof’s. In Stettinius’ case, Lenz’s neighbor and friend Timothy Bartling helped the elderly artist move into an assisted living facility. Bartling realized that her entire creative output might be lost. He contacted friend Stettinius who ultimately took on the project. A book was published and an exhibition arranged — and Candela was born. During the process, Lenz lived for eight years after she moved, and Stettinius maintained consistent contact with her. This all sounds “Tinker to Evers to Chance,” except it wasn’t. Like Maloof, the collection presented a near overwhelming assortment of unexpected challenges.
Stettinius says, “Truth be known, I, too, rescued the work, brought it to my house in Goochland — and I didn’t do absolutely anything with it for two or three years. It just doesn’t snap into a portfolio without concentrated effort. It was a hot mess, as I imagine [Maier's] was, too.”
Maloof’s effort with Maier’s legacy through his circulating of images and blogging came to Stettinius’ attention.
“And at the same time, I became custodian of Gita Lenz’s archive. I was trying to do this on Gita’s behalf, and I’d be showing the work to gallery people in New York and they’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, I thought I’ve seen this.’ They were confusing the two projects every once in a while.”
And this writer saw his first Vivian Maier print at a Candela exhibition in 2013.
Lenz and Maier were two quite separate individuals: Lenz was active in the art world, wrote and participated in exhibitions and political organizations. Maier, to put it mildly, kept to herself. That's central to the puzzle: It is a basic aspect of human ego and the search for validation in the greater world that compels many artists. Except, Maier didn't pursue recognition. "For filmmakers, for her fans, and for the people who knew her when she was alive and now must reconcile that elusive figure with her posthumous reputation as an artist, Maier’s story is titillating precisely because of how it deviates from the familiar narratives about artistic aspiration," writes Rose Lichter-Marck in The New Yorker. "They can’t understand why she never put aside her profession for her passion. People who never saw her without a Rolleiflex around her neck express bewilderment that they were in the company of a great talent. ('She was a nanny, for God’s sakes.')"
Stettinius met Lenz and they maintained consistent contact throughout the process. Maloof’s project involved researching clues from envelopes and letters that brought him to families for which she’d worked. He became part of the story. Google searches for her name yielded nothing until Maloof ran across Maier's obituary announcing she’d died a few days before.
Stettinius muses, “When you buy the contents of a storage locker at a sale, your immediate reaction is not to find the owner of the contents. I think Maloof circled around the issue the only way he knew. He wasn’t a photographer. He wasn’t looking to establish anybody’s artistic legacy.”
But he came to understand the importance of what he’d found.
Maloof inaugurated a Kickstarter campaign to raise $25,000 to publish a Maier book. That effort yielded $116,000 and made the movie possible.
But bringing Vivian Maier into the world has brought controversy ranging from disputes of Maloof’s story to arguments about copyright. As Jillian Steinhauer in the online site Hyperallergic wrote, “People objected to the invasion of privacy the film seemed to represent for a woman who, during her lifetime, had been guarded to the point of paranoia; they objected to the way it fetishized her; and they objected to the film’s focus on Maloof as the sole hero of the Maier discovery.”
Central to the intrigue with the Maier story is how she, with apparent willfulness, chose not to present her art to the world. It may be that this was a combination of issues, such as lacking the right temperament or sufficient mentors,or because her work never met the high standards she arbitrarily set, or some early disappointment knocked the struts out from underneath her confidence. In our present day, people are anointed as famous for doing absolutely nothing except, perhaps, to have appeared on an updated version of "Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour." This pursuit of validation doesn't appear to have suited Maier, though later in life, when she traveled abroad, she appears to have received some inspiration in that direction. What puzzles us most now is this deliberate effort to remain unheralded.
These issues will take years to sort out. "Between you and and me, anytime there's money to be made on something, that's when the lawyers come out," says Ted Forbes of the podcast "The Art of Photography," who here explains the complexities of creating prints from negatives you didn't make, and the complicated lady who did.
There’s an artistic argument, too. Maier mostly didn’t print her own work. Reams of negatives remain that aren't developed. What, then, was the artist's intent? And of what's been seen of Maier’s photography, the most compelling aspect is her ability to get within her subject’s comfort zone. In a world now dominated by camera phones where we are getting our picture taken sometimes without our knowledge, Maier and her Rolleiflex often came within inches of total strangers. It wasn’t as discrete an action as it is now.
“She possessed a curious empathy with people she randomly bumped against," Stettinius says. "She was running through these harder Chicago neighborhoods and boldly taking pictures and connecting in ways that most people find uncomfortable. The self portraiture is pretty canny, artful on the one hand and on the other records the identity of this woman who was so reclusive.”
Street photography is an established genre. Maier was somewhat of a later contemporary of New Yorker Helen Levitt and the social concerns agenda of the Photo League. But what she knew of these efforts isn’t clear. She had a definite eye and a gift for timing that is often astonishing.
When considering this movie, and the nature of public personae and private life, and what constitutes art, I thought of two recent films, both of which would've played at the Bijou were it established. Carol Morley's Dreams of a Life, about Joyce Carol Vincent, who inexplicably remained in her London bedsit for three years before her skeletal remains were found in 2006. Morley was later criticized for not including that Vincent's family hired a detective (though it seems, not a good one) to find her. Vincent, in her 30s, and by accounts of those who knew her, attractive and sociable, dropped out of her circle and vanished. Then there's another story of retrieval -- this time, for $5 from a thrift shop — by truck driving Teri Horton who learns she may (or may not) have purchased an original work by Jackson Pollock, who altered contemporary art. Director Harry Moses turned the true story into the documentary Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?. "As everyone knows, fairy tales start with, 'Once upon a time,' " as the salty-tongued Horton says. " But a truck driver's tale starts, 'You ain't gonna believe this s**t.' " And the story left some art experts not convinced.
You will be able to judge for yourself about all these matters pertaining to Vivian Maier and her presenters on Sunday. Advance tickets are available online at Eventbrite for $5 (plus processing fee). Until Feb. 15, advance tickets can also be purchased for $5 (cash or check) at Bygones Vintage Clothing, Candela Books + Gallery and Ipanema.
The after-party at the New York Deli begins shortly after 9 p.m. Parrish says, "It wasn't as easy a pairing for music and images as was A Hard Day's Night. But you think black and white photography in Chicago city streets and you think jazz. Plus, this is one of the last chances you'll get to see Roger together with Chez Roue." The band is pianist Debo Dabney, Johnny Hott on drums, Brian Sulser on bass, and Carroll, with his big, big voice. As Carroll has often said from the stage, "Ain't nobody lyin' up in here."