I Found Vivian Maier – But It Was a Long Drive

“You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
― Ansel Adams

Vivian Maier, self portrait

Vivian Maier, self portrait

About a year ago I was stretched out on my couch, TV remote in hand, clicking through the channels – way past the point of holding out hope that anything remotely worthwhile would emerge shimmering from the flatscreen. I was, I suppose, mistaken.

A documentary called Finding Vivian Maier started up somewhere in one of the channels in the one-thousand-eight-hundred-something range. It was done by a New York artist named John Maloof. He was doing a book on the past years of the Big Apple and was haunting estate sales for photographs of a historical nature. He bought a box of some sort, hauled it home, and discovered it was full of both photographs and hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film.

And what photographs!

They were urban street scenes – but done with an impeccable eye and amazing composition. They were as good as the best professional work – but were a complete mystery. Who had taken these? How did they end up in this box? Why were they so good?

So Maloof started going through his box, finding scraps of paper with names and addresses that gave him his first clues as to who the photographer was and what the story behind them was. That story turned out to be as amazing as the shots themselves.

The photographer was a woman named Vivian Maier (though she used a number of different spellings of her name).

Some details of her life are still a bit fuzzy – but she took these photos while she worked as a nanny. She would walk around the city with the children, taking photos. She did this for years and years.

The filmmaker tracked down some of these kids, now grown, and interviews them about the odd woman that used to babysit them, and drag them all over the place with her trusty Rolleiflex.

I watched the biography several times and talked about it to my friends. Everybody that saw it found it as fascinating as I did. Of course, I searched for her work on this inter-web-thing – finding one amazing image after another.

Then, earlier this summer, I was driving to work, listening to a local radio station in my car – when a woman came on to announce the art happenings in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. She said, “And opening today, at the Arlington Museum of Art, is the show “Vivian Maier Lost and Found” and exhibition of work by the reclusive photographer. When I arrived home I did a quick Google search and found everything I needed to know.

I hadn’t even been aware that there was an Arlington Museum of Art. But it was easy to find, right in the middle of Arlington, which is right in the middle of the Metroplex. I was amped.

Things were really busy, so I didn’t go right away. The show ran all summer, so I wasn’t in much of a hurry. But, time flies, and my warning note in my Bullet Journal (Vivian Maier Exhibit Ends Soon!) reminded me that I needed to go. Luckily, I had some vacation time that I had to take so I put in for a Friday off and made plans for the solo drive to Arlington.

It’s a long way. There are giant elevated Texas concrete toll-roads that crisscross the ancient prairie like slashes from a celestial scimitar and I used my friends at Google Maps to maneuver through this unhuman maze without any real difficulty. Summer storms roiled and rolled by, windy, raining and thundering, but not able to significantly slow the stream of metal meat-cases plying the roads.

When I entered, a guy took my ticket and started to explain the exhibit. “But I know you’re excited,” he said, looking at me shifting from foot to foot, “So I’ll let you go look and not waste your time. Come back and ask me any questions.” Actually, I had to pee, but I appreciated his skills at observations.

It was really cool. Not overly large – fifty works in total. I was familiar with Vivian Maier, of course, but seeing the photos in professional quality gelatin prints, matted there on the well-lit walls… that is a thrill compared to staring at humble pixels on a laptop screen.

I decided that my favorite was this shot of two men staring at a coil of something in the rain. It seems to tell a story.

Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier

Then I asked the guy that took my ticket what his favorite was. There is this amazing shot of a man in a newsstand. I especially like how the titles on his wares illustrate the times.

Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier

And he liked (as did I) this mysterious shot of a winged car and some cats. It’s a spaceship guarded by two felines.

Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier

A cool afternoon, well worth the drive.

I’m a little ashamed that I knew nothing of the Arlington Museum of Art – the new show there looks really cool. It’s an exhibition of local artists called Ulterior Motifs.

I think I’m going to be making that long drive again.

Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier

Obscurity Is Usually the Refuge Of Incompetence

“It’s up to the artist to use language that can be understood, not hide it in some private code. Most of these jokers don’t even want to use language you and I know or can learn . . . they would rather sneer at us and be smug, because we ‘fail’ to see what they are driving at. If indeed they are driving at anything–obscurity is usually the refuge of incompetence.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Your Match-Book Songs And Your Gypsy Hymns

“With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into your eyes where the moonlight swims,
And your match-book songs and your gypsy hymns,
Who among them would try to impress you?

-Bob Dylan, “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

That I Might Touch That Cheek

“See how she leans her cheek upon her hand.
O, that I were a glove upon that hand
That I might touch that cheek!”
― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Dallas Museum of Art

Dallas Museum of Art

“So she thoroughly taught him that one cannot take pleasure without giving pleasure, and that every gesture, every caress, every touch, every glance, every last bit of the body has its secret, which brings happiness to the person who knows how to wake it. She taught him that after a celebration of love the lovers should not part without admiring each other, without being conquered or having conquered, so that neither is bleak or glutted or has the bad feeling of being used or misused.”
― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

Dallas Museum of Art

Dallas Museum of Art

“Touch. It is touch that is the deadliest enemy of chastity, loyalty, monogamy, gentility with its codes and conventions and restraints. By touch we are betrayed and betray others … an accidental brushing of shoulders or touching of hands … hands laid on shoulders in a gesture of comfort that lies like a thief, that takes, not gives, that wants, not offers, that awakes, not pacifies. When one flesh is waiting, there is electricity in the merest contact.”
― Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

Dallas Museum of Art

Dallas Museum of Art

Give Him A Mask And He’ll Tell You the Truth

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he’ll tell you the truth”
― Oscar Wilde

Mouth Mask Probably Depicting the Head of a Rooster Indonesia: Southeast Moluccas, Leti, Luhuleli 19th Century Wood, Boar Tusks, Clam Shell, Mother-of-Pearl, buffalo horn, resinous material, and pigment Dallas Museum of Art

Mouth Mask Probably Depicting the Head of a Rooster
Indonesia: Southeast Moluccas, Leti, Luhuleli
19th Century
Wood, Boar Tusks, Clam Shell, Mother-of-Pearl, buffalo horn, resinous material, and pigment
Dallas Museum of Art

Label Text:
Among the rarest of sculptures from the Southeast Moluccas are small masklike objects depicting the head of an animal. The dancer held the masklike object in his mouth by the tab extending from the back of the head. This type of object is thus sometimes referred to as a mouth mask. Only four mouth masks have survived, three of which are in European museum collections and represent pigs. This Dallas mask depicts a bird, probably a rooster. The sculptor imaginatively used boar tusks to create the white feathers that rise above the head and encircle the bird’s face.

Pig mouth masks are associated with a distinctive fertility ritual called porka, which encourages increase and abundance among human beings, animals, and vegetation. The bird mask shown here was used in a war dance that was performed by men and portrayed headhunting.