Vivian and Me: Not Likely


Vivian Maier

From Steve Ehtridge—


For the first time in a number of years, Spring Break finds me with not much to do. I was caught up on my grading and web posting before the week began, and I’m fairly well scheduled out for the rest of the semester. I might do some reading, perhaps a little writing in my journal, and there is always the temptation to begin some project around the house. In the meantime, I continue to be drawn to Netflix, as more and more of us seem to be. Trending early in the week was a documentary about a now deceased nanny from Chicago who was also a part-time photographer (although the exact opposite might be true: a photographer who was also a part-time nanny) whose work had been discovered after her death in the form of unprinted negatives and reels of amateur film. Finding Vivian Maier, made by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, documents the story of Maier, whose many photographs span the years from the late forties through the last decades of the 20th century. She is shown to have been strangely eccentric, extremely private, genuinely gifted with a camera, but also, as is revealed in the testimony from some of her grown charges, a harsh caretaker and a person of questionable sanity who, in the end, winds up destitute and homeless.

Her proclivities and character notwithstanding, what I found most fascinating was the manner with which she is now enough of a curiosity to warrant a documentary on Netflix. Her work was not simply discovered in some remote gallery somewhere but had to be stumbled upon by Maloof, whose unlikely purchase at auction resembled an episode of Storage Wars. What began as a few boxes of negatives led him to an ultimate bounty of thousands of unprinted photos, many of which he has scanned and printed, as well as some unique home movies and voice recordings. By the time it’s over, the documentary seems to serve as a sort of vehicle through which he gains permission Vivian and Me: Not Likely  to “further her work”—to win the widespread notoriety she never received in the art world. Hmmmm. Perhaps a little cash she never received too.

This is when I began to worry about my own work. I suppose similar to many with a job related to writing, I engage in some private excursions that nobody is ever likely to see. I’m sure none of what I consider my “finished work” is good enough to have published, but at any rate, most of it is certainly raw. Some I keep in a journal, some I do share with others, but most I consider just notes to self. Some stays tucked away as snippets I might revisit if I’m looking for ideas, probably a tactic of many journal writers, although I can only recall one occasion when I resorted to this. Nonetheless, I sometimes wonder what might happen with my dream piece about Ted Nugent shooting me with an arrow if I put some work into it or perhaps my futuristic interview with George Bush set in 2025–even some of my dull poetry might be of interest to somebody. Anybody who’s ever read The Crack Up has gotten a glimpse of F. Scott’s meanderings.

But we don’t have to be a Fitzgerald. In fact, I suppose all of us who like to write might sometimes worry about our writing legacies. Will I ever receive any recognition? Is the writing really as lousy as I think it is? On that off chance that there are a few gems, will my occasional rare wit be stored in dust-covered boxes alongside Vivian Maier’s thousands of negatives, only to be accidentally unearthed years later like the skeletons in Poltergeist?

After giving it some thought, I realize I have nothing to worry about. All my writing is stored in my computer. If any of the stuff was any good, I probably would have already been hacked.


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