Nearly everyone takes photographs. But they’re usually of the kids’ birthday parties, summer vacations at the lake, sunlit frost on the trees—and more recently, the Rueben sandwich you were served at the Modern Times Café yesterday. Vivian Meiers, a reclusive Chicago nanny, took roughly a roll of film every day for decades, though she developed very few of the negatives. They turned out to be more interesting.
In 2009, a young man named John Maloof bought a case of the recently deceased and entirely unknown woman’s negatives at auction for $384, hoping that the Chicago street scenes would be a useful complement to a local history he was writing. Taking a closer look, he became convinced that Vivian Meiers was a great photographer, worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Atget, Carier-Bresson, Robert Frank, or Diane Arbus. He presents his case in the documentary Finding Vivian Meiers. I, for one, am convinced.
The film consists of interviews with the various wealthy families that employed Meiers at one time or another, and the children (now adults) who were in her care. Famous photographers on the order of Joel Meyerowitz also receive extended screen time. Maloof tells us how he acquired the material, the steps he took to research Meier’s family and her years spent with relatives in France, and the difficulties he encountered interesting leading photography curators in Meier’s work.
Interspersed throughout the narrative are stills Meier took on the streets of Chicago, remarkable for their balance, oddness, handling of light and dark, and warmth. Meier isn’t trying to deliver a harsh critique of the alienation of modern urban life or take us beyond what photographers have done before. Rather, she’s picking up on the beauty and particularity of individual moments, individual lives.
As the film progresses, the talking points are several. Did Meiers know she was great? Did she care? Is that what we should worry ourselves about—her stature? Or is it enough to see life with renewed freshness through the eyes of an “unknown craftsman."?
Would she be happy to know she's finally getting a degree of recognition? Would she care? Or was it enough to see and admire and capture a thousand little moments, drawing out the flickers of genius in others many of whom were starring in their own little dramas, unknown to the world, unrecognized?
The Minneapolis Photo Center had a show of Vivian Meier's work recently, and it was so popular they now have a permanent exhibit of her work on display.