Monday, March 04, 2013

`Drawn to What She Recognizes'

My brother alerted me to the work of a photographer, Vivian Maier, who for decades earned her living as a nanny, treated her gift with the dedication of a private vocation and achieved some measure of renown only after her death in 2009 at age eighty-three. Her photographs remind Ken of Dorothea Lange's, and I can see that, but but I'm reminded more of Walker Evans, with his formalist's eye for a radically informal world. By all accounts, Maier was eccentric but sufficiently kind and generous-spirited to be trusted by families to care for their children. With her hat and bluffly innocent demeanor, she recalls Marianne Moore. She also reminds me of the Irish-born writer for The New Yorker, Maeve Brennan (1917-1993). Alongside her fiction, between 1954 and 1981 Brennan wrote an ongoing series of sketches for the magazine's "The Talk of the Town" feature, later collected in The Long-Winded Lady (1969, rev. ed. 1998). They depict, like many of Maier's photographs, life in the street, but without the agitprop didacticism that label implies. In the "Author's Note" Brennan included in the first edition, she writes of the Long-Winded Lady:

"When she looks about her, it is not the strange or exotic ways of people that interest her, but the ordinary ways, when something that is familiar to her shows. She is drawn to what she recognizes, or half-recognizes..."

In her later years, Brennan, suffered from alcoholism and mental illness, and disappeared from the literary world. Her editor and friend William Maxwell championed her work, ushered her reputation after her death and wrote of her: "During the last decade of her life she moved in and out of reality in a way that was heartbreaking to watch and that only hospitals could deal with." Brennan's work, and Maier's even more so, is so good and tangential to its time, we must resist romanticizing it by calling it "outsider art" or some other uncomprehending label. One of the chief caretakers of Maier's reputation, John Maloof, has published Vivian Maier: Street Photographer (powerHouse Books, 2011). In his introduction, Maloof quotes an observation Maier left in an audio recording that echoes Ecclesiastes:

"We have to make room for other people. It's a wheel--you get on, you go to the end, and someone else has the same opportunity to go to the end, and so on, and somebody else takes their place. There's nothing new under the sun."

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