See the World

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming

Lyme Regis, August 2010
Photo Credit: Sunchild57 Photography

Writing is seeing. It is paying attention. —Kate DiCamillo

Recently I watched the documentary Finding Vivian Maier. Vivian Maier (1926-2009) was a nanny, mostly in Chicago. She was also an avid street photographer.

Shortly before her death, the contents of her storage locker were auctioned off after she failed to pay the fees. The contents included photographs, negatives, and rolls and rolls of undeveloped film. These were purchased by a couple of enterprising men who are now making their fortunes off Maier’s lifework. (The questionable ethics of that are a subject for a different piece.)

Naturally, the question everyone has been asking since the finders first started sharing the photographs (because, of course, they did) is: Why would anyone take so many photographs and not share them—in many cases, not even develop them? The ubiquity of social media amplifies the confusion over this contradiction, confusion that at times seems to rise to distress, but even people who aren’t social media users are perplexed. Isn’t that the purpose of a photograph? To be shared?

Why take so many photographs if not to share them? Why? It doesn’t make sense.

Or does it?

When I initially heard about Vivian Maier a few years ago, my reaction was similar. Huh, strange. It seemed to be a uniquely individual story, one of an eccentric person, not something more universal. But then, details were sketchy. Watching the documentary, my thoughts shifted. While the documentary narrative attempts to paint Maier as a crazy person (she did seem to have some issues in her later years, but whether this was anything more than age-related cognitive decline is unclear) reading between the lines, a different picture begins to form.

Early on in the film, John Maloof, the buyer of the majority of Maier’s creative work and the person profiting from it—and the documentary about her—says straight into the camera: “Why would a nanny be taking all these photographs?”

Wait, what?

I love it when the answer is in the question. Hmm, maybe one reason she didn’t bother sharing her photographs was because of that attitude. Oh, you’re just a nanny. You couldn’t possibly be creating anything of value. In fact, all the people interviewed in the film remember that Maier was always taking photographs—the children (now grown) recall often being bored waiting for her to finish taking pictures; the parents remember thinking it was odd that she always had her camera with her—but I don’t think a single one of them mentions ever asking to see her photographs.

Maybe she was just waiting for someone (anyone) to ask. For someone to take an interest in what was so obviously her passion. Instead, it was dismissed as an odd quirk. After all, she wasn’t a real person; she was just the nanny.

In a review of the film at The New Yorker, Rose Lichter-Marck points out a better question for Maloof to have asked would be why someone who was such a good photographer—and knew it, because she did—chose to work as a nanny.

As Maier is no longer with us, we can only guess, but here are a few thoughts. Perhaps she did try to share her photographs when she was younger and met with rejection. Perhaps she didn’t know where to start to get a foot in the door. Perhaps, considering her options, nannying seemed the best career choice: it gave her a place to live; it wasn’t too exhausting (she had previously worked in a sweatshop); it gave her access to worlds she might not otherwise be able to enter and lots of opportunities to take photographs. Which was what she really wanted to do—but she had to eat, too.

Perhaps, as the years went on, the product became less important, the process more.

Perhaps she had qualms about becoming famous, considered that the accoutrements of that fame might diminish her ability to take the kinds of photographs she liked to take. She was a street photographer, after all. And in that, her great advantage was that she was “just a nanny”—invisible to those around her.

Here’s where I think people go wrong when they try to understand Vivian Maier. Photographs may be for sharing, but photography is a way of seeing. For a photographer, it’s never just about the final print; it’s about composing the shot, framing the image, deciding what to include and what to exclude, thinking about the light, focusing, knowing exactly when to press the shutter button. And all of this is a way of thinking about and understanding the world.

Vivian Maier didn’t spend all her life in the nanny room of a single house in Chicago. She worked for many different families, lived in different cities and on different continents, and traveled—including at least one around-the-world trip. And everywhere she went, she took photographs. Ultimately, she sounds like a private person who followed her own path and led an interesting life. That she chose to pursue her passion privately rather than chasing after fame and fortune (or giving it up to lead a more conventional life) does not make her crazy. It makes her brave.

At the end of the film, I was left thinking not just about Maier, but about all the writers who fill notebooks and journals with words that are rarely (if ever) re-read, who have stories they haven’t shared tucked in drawers and hidden on hard drives. Is not-sharing really so odd when you think about it? We all do it. Maybe not with everything, like Maier, but with some things.

In writing this, I remember a quote saved last year in my commonplace book:

You see, at my age, after the youth burns out, and the long sweet middle years lie ahead, what happens after the writing is done simply does not matter. The point is the chemical burn itself, the molecular exchange, not what is produced or left behind. The point is being, not having done. —Brian Vandyke

Writers are fond of saying “I write because I must (write)” but this is a tautology. We write because it’s how we see the world, how we attempt to understand it. It enriches our lives, even if we don’t share our work. Because writing—creating—is first, foremost, and always, about the process.

pencilEmail: beaver[at]

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