History is replete with lists of names and memorable biographies of the many gifted and talented artists that have graced our world. Indeed, these lists are so long and voluminous (and only growing ever more so), we may sometimes wonder if there are perhaps too many names already on them! But, of course, though not every artist is a Picasso, and not every photographer a Cartier-Bresson, each of us has our own story to tell. Still, very few of us who have - publically at least - accomplished "little" - will ever get mentioned on learned lists that include such names as Picasso and Cartier-Bresson. But what of the "Picassos" that share in Picasso's pool of talent but who no one knows by name, because the output of their creative life was / is confined but to a handful of family and friends? What of the prodigiously talented but utterly unrecognized Uber-geniuses that walk among us? As history also attests, the only real difference between "known" and "unknown" is luck.
I recently ran across a remarkable story about a nanny - and prodigiously talented but utterly unrecognized (until very recently) street photographer from the 1950s - named Vivian Maier. In 2007, real estate agent John Maloof bought a box of 30,000 of Maier's negatives for $400. Having soon realized what a "find" that box was, he has, by now, acquired over 100,000 of Maier's photographs! (only a thousand or so of which have so far been made public; see here and here for a sampling of her images). An exhibit of her work opened at the Chicago Cultural Center earlier this month. Sadly, Vivian Maier did not live to see her day; she died at age 83 in 2009.
It is hard to do justice to the quiet, soulful, graceful, and poignant (and sometimes spontaneous, funny) images that flowed from Maier's eye (and "I"). Using a Rolleiflex camera, Maier would head out into the Chicago streets on her days off as a nanny for rich North Shore clients. What she captured was nothing short of extraordinary! Her best work - IMHO (after sampling the images from the links I gave above) - approaches that of some of the "best known" street photographers of the 20th century. Her images (and overall approach) remind me of (in no particular order) Lisette Model, Walker Evans, Harry Callahan, Dorothea Lange, Robert Doisneau, Andre Kertesz, and - the more humorous ones, at least - Elliott Erwitt. I should emphasize that its not just that her images remind me of the best works by these great photographers; it's that her best work is just as good as theirs!
One image (of two boys standing side-by-side on a cobble-stone road) could arguably be inserted into a Diane Arbus portfolio with no one being the wiser. Another, of a vagabond curled up on a street, is a surrealistic fusion of human pathos and Weston's famous Pepper #30. Another (one of many!) exudes a Cartier-Bresson-like "decisive moment" feel. Still another echoes Kertesz's geometric meloncholy. One could go on and on, comparing this image to that, and illustrating how certain parts of her portfolio are similar to this photographer or that (Jacques Philippe has posted an interesting analysis of Maier's work); in the end, Maier's work is uniquely hers, and hers alone, and it is astounding in its breadth, depth, and meaning! The photo-history books, I suspect, are already being appended - and amended - with Vivian Maier's story!
I wonder, just how many other gifted artists are quietly walking - and creating extraordinary works of art - among us, unknown to all but a few lucky friends and family members?
Postscript: Click here for info about a feature-length documentary film about Vivian Maier that is in the works (for a 2012 release); the producers - John Maloof, Anthony Rydzon, and award-winning Danish documentary film maker, Lars Mortensen - are asking for pledges on Kickstarter.