The ones I like best are the ones where she isn’t even there. A shadow on a lawn, a shimmer in the shiny head of a sprinkler. A shadow sliver of her wide-brimmed hat and her broad shoulders on the sidewalk at the feet of two women, creamy legs crossed on a bench, leaning in to conversation. A shadow puppet, dancing on the side of a Chicago building. She is several shadows at the beach. In one, trees grow out of her shadow head; in another, possibly my favorite, the shadow brim of her hat almost touches the hair-rollered head of a sunbathing woman.
I wanted to figure out who she was, says John Malouf in the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, co-written and co-directed with Charlie Siskel. Malouf’s the intrepid, endearing guy who discovered the treasure trove of Maier’s undeveloped photographs—over 100,000 negatives!—at a thrift auction house in Chicago and made them public after her death. Why is a nanny taking all these photos? Malouf asks. The only unimaginative part of the movie involves those peculiar questions (Why is she childless? Why is she unmarried?) occasionally discernible in the subtext of interviews conducted with her employers and the children in her care.There was also her stubborn eccentricity. Why does she speak with a possibly fake French accent? The woman with the twin-lens Rolleiflex camera was a mystery.
I keep misremembering the movie’s title. It should be called In Search of Vivian Maier, I keep insisting. Maier was a mystery fascinated by the mystery of the self. She understood there’s only ever in search of, never finding. No pinning the butterfly—its roving expansive wanderings, the poignant flapping against its cage. Maier took lots of photographs—intimate, wonderfully strange street photographs on par with Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus. But it is the self-portraits in stark black and white, the color of the world bled out, their smoky elusivity, that I can’t stop looking at (http://www.vivianmaier.com/gallery/self-portraits/). Maybe it’s because I’ve recently spent time looking at 19th century forensic photography—women diagnosed as hysterics, alleged criminals. Proof. See? That’s what crazy looks like. That’s what criminal looks like. Maier’s self-portraits (the black and white, in particular, because of their liminal, dreamlike quality) are questions. Am I her? Her? Am I here?
The self-portraits are dated, 1953 to 1971, except for those with no date at all. She is not always a shadow. There she is, tall, startling, beautiful, reflected in a silver platter in an antique store, in a hubcap, in a bathroom whose mirrors extend her into infinity. There, reflected in a store window, a little girl (her charge?) hamming it up beside her; there, in another store window, the reflection of two women in her skirt, as though they’ve taken refuge there. There’s only one where she’s smiling, reflected in a full-length mirror hoisted out of a dumpster by a man whose face you cannot see. There is no getting to the bottom of her.
Maud Casey is the author of three novels, including most recently The Man Who Walked Away, and a collection of stories, Drastic. Her essays and criticism have appeared in A Public Space, Literary Imagination, the New York Times Book Review, Oxford American, and Salon.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.