I was going to spend today reading, but I decided to stop by the Vivian Maier website… and now it’s got me thinking. This photograph she took of New York City in 1953 says amazing things about the differences between then and now. There are no cell phones. There are no screens. There are only people watching what’s going on immediately around them, interacting with their world. They are making the world as they live in it… and now we are looking at pictures of them having done that already.
Because now we don’t actually participate in our worlds. We simply film or photograph it for others. Or watch the images others have captured — of the past, distant or recent, which we haven’t participated in. Because, well, we’re looking at our screens.
And it occurs to me that, like classic rock on the radio, our media are suspending us in time by consuming our attention on things that have nothing to do with our present. We’re so busy looking at what used to be, or what we missed, or what may be coming in the future, that our present is deprived. Dessicated. A thin shadow of what the past once was.
And then there’s Vivian Maier… A few years ago, I learned about this enigmatic street photographer whose work was discovered after a storage container sale in Chicago. She had thousands upon thousands of photographs — rolls and rolls of undeveloped film — stashed away. And not until a real estate guy named John Maloof bought the stash and started developing the pictures, did the world realize her work existed.
Vivian Maier is an enigma to most. She focused almost exclusively on her work, taking jobs as a nanny to get room and board and some spending money… while she hauled her charges all over creation and took pictures of the world around her. She had few friends. She was leery of strangers — especially men. She tended to dress in men’s clothing. She was standoffish. Some of her former charges called her “cold” and “cruel”, if I’m remembering the documentary correctly. She had a rich life hidden behind the scenes — close ties to French relatives who loved her, apparently. And her work was exemplary. Prodigious. Prolific. Highly detailed and nuanced.
Without getting into armchair diagnosis of Ms. Maier, I will say that much of what she did, I would fully expect an autistic woman to do. It sounds so familiar, absolutely super-sensical, so logical and well-justified. If photography is your Primary Focus — and it apparently was for her — and you’re fundamentally autistic, then you’re not going to waste a lot of time on needless social interactions, wearing clothing that binds you and holds you back, or taking jobs that detract from your Calling.
Those things that made her what she was also made her a mystery to others. Her former charges, now grown up and well into middle-age, talk about her in tones mixed with annoyance, fear, and puzzlement. Just as I’d expect neurotypically developing children to talk about an autistic nanny. Just as I’d expect any PNT person to talk about an autistic person who spends a lot of time with them, controlling many aspects of their lives.