Vivian Maier: The Strangeness of Selves

Christina Hesselholdt’s newly-translated book, Vivian, turns the late American photographer’s life into a novel

Around 2007, an archive of around 150,000 photographs, films and prints appeared at auctions in Chicago. Their compositional wit, humane curiosity and sometimes sheer strangeness drove collectors to track down their author. Born in 1926 in Manhattan to a French mother and an Austro-Hungarian father, Vivian Maier had worked as a nanny to a string of families, never publicly shown her work, and died poor and isolated in 2009 as the storage companies were indiscriminately selling her possessions.

A series of high-profile exhibitions and coffee-table books followed and, in 2013, two documentary films – John Maloof’s Finding Vivian Maier and Jill Nicholls’ ‘Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?’, part of the BBC’s series Imagine (2003-ongoing), fronted by Alan Yentob – gave different perspectives on the booming Maier industry. She was fêted as one of the great street photographers of the 20th century. Prints of her work sold for thousands of dollars.

Vivian Maier, Untitled, n.d., photograph. Courtesy: Vivian Maier Estate, Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

In Nicholls’ film, Yentob concludes that she has ‘caught the imagination of a world captivated with taking pictures incessantly on their phones. Vivian has gone viral.’ Like most smartphone photographers, Maier saw her compositions only once, when she made them – she developed very few negatives. Perhaps the story of her discovery appeals in some small way to everyone who carries an unseen archive of their visual lives in their pockets.

Maier’s images record moments with a clarity that is difficult to paraphrase. But despite interviews with the children she nannied, the parents who employed her and the closest person she had to a friend, both films are left stitching those moments together into the narrative of a life by speculating on motive and emotion. With Vivian, first published in Danish in 2016 and now translated into English by Paul Russell Garrett for Fitzcarraldo Editions, Christina Hesselholdt turns this imaginative space into a novel.

While Hesselholdt’s Companions (2015) – published in Russell Garrett’s English translation in 2017 – was arranged as a series of monologues, Vivian is distributed among several characters as if mimicking the structure of Maloof and Nicholls’ documentaries. ‘Ellen’ bears some fictionalized relation to Inger Raymond, a child who remembers her nanny taking her on walks punctuated by photography and violently force-feeding her when she wouldn’t eat. ‘Sarah’ and ‘Peter’ are amalgams of Maier’s employers. ‘Vivian’ herself shifts into ‘Viv’, sometimes into ‘V Smith’, one of the aliases Maier used on documents. She often described herself as a spy.

Vivian Maier, Untitled, n.d., photograph. Courtesy: Vivian Maier Estate, Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

Hesselholdt’s Vivian visits the epochal photography exhibition ‘Family of Man’, presented at MOMA in 1955, reads Susan Sontag’s critique of the sentimental elisions it made of the inequality within this global ‘family’ and thinks about meeting her. On seeing a mentally ill man being arrested in the street, Viv tells us: ‘Had I not photographed him, his misery would have crushed me.’ ‘The self-portraits’, meanwhile, ‘are also a way of keeping a bit of an eye on myself’.

The ‘Narrator’ is Hesselholdt’s own stand-in, filling in Vivian’s backstory and reflecting on the nature of novelistic research in the 21st century through ‘maps and Google and Wikipedia and scraps of poetry’. The characters are so subtly separated that it can be easy to forget who is speaking. Sometimes they come into dialogue. Vivian asks: ‘How much of the person behind the camera can be seen in the works? Is one hidden behind them or on the contrary do they unveil you?’, only to conclude: ‘I think they do. The narrator is the real main character’. The narrator replies in the affirmative: ‘I can only agree with you’.

Vivian Maier, Untitled, n.d., photograph. Courtesy: Vivian Maier Estate, Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

At one point, this narrator tells Vivian that she’s been compared to Emily Dickinson – not only because they both became famous posthumously, but because ‘neither of you formed a couple with anyone’. Vivian disagrees:

Her poems breathe under the surface.
My photographs are straightforward.

Hesselholdt’s snapshot attempts to summarize Maier’s works can seem tautologous. When she hands over to her imagination, however, she achieves something parallel to the photographs: self-deprecating, fascinated by the strangeness of selves. Like the book’s Emily Dickinson epigraph – ‘Have you the Heart in your Breast – Sir – is it set like mine – a little to the left –’ – Hesselholdt brings Maier to life, luminously: looking down into the viewfinder on the top of her Rolleiflex camera, seeing the image for the first and last time.

Christina Hesselholdt, 'Vivian' is published at Fitzcarraldo Editions on 19 June 2019.

Main image: Vivian Maier, self portrait (detail), 1953, photograph. Courtesy: Vivian Maier Estate, Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

Tom Overton is John Berger’s biographer, Archive Curator at the Barbican Centre, London, and co-host of Suite (212) on Resonance FM. He tweets at @tw_overton and collects his articles at overton.tw.

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