A Lifetime Spent in Anonymity

Last Saturday I went to visit an exhibition of photos taken by Vivian Maier, an American photographer who was unknown to me.

From the early 50s, she spent over forty years working as a nanny, first in New York and later in Chicago.

Only recently, in 2007, her photographic work was discovered. She spent her lifetime in anonymity despite her impressive work. More than 120,000 negatives, films in Super 8 and 16 mm, various audio recordings, some developed photos, and hundreds of non-developed rolls of film.

Photography was not only her hobby but also her true passion. It raised her to the rank of the most emblematic “street photographer” and earned her a place in the History of Photography, alongside Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Helen Levitt.

The discovery of her work makes us understand the importance of having a purpose in life.

Actually, Vivian Maier the “nanny” could become Vivian Maier the photographer”.

There are recurring themes throughout her work. You can find street scenes, portraits of strangers, but also people she knew. The children she used to work with were one of her favourite subjects.

She was also fond of self-portraits. There were quite many at the exhibition, she appears in multiple forms and several variations to the point of becoming a sort of duality.

Unlike the myth of Narcissus, who destroyed himself in the contemplation and even adulation of his own image, Vivian Maier’s interest in self-portraits was more like a quest for her own identity.

The work as a nanny would give her the money to enjoy the freedom of expressing herself through her passion, photography.

This anonymity gave her the chance to set the proof of her presence in a world she seemed to have no real place in.

In the reflections of her face in a mirror, or her shadow stretched out on the ground, or in the outline of the body, she affirmed her presence in the world at a particular place and time.

The shadows were her body in the negative and they give us the duality of her playing with her own image, by disappearing and emerging again. And this is the way she defined herself.

This exhibition left me with some unanswered questions.

  1. How many invisible artists are there in the world? Do you know any?
  2. Would they pursue their passion regardless of the fame they may or may not get?
  3. How would you define yourself?

I know several artists who do other jobs but still pursue their passion and would never give up.

However, I don’t know how to define myself yet. Maybe through blogging? Or getting to know other people and other cultures? By sharing knowledge? Helping people in search of meaning? All of that?

And what about you? Let me know in the comments.

Speaking of blogging, please visit my personal blog crisbiecoach.

19 thoughts on “A Lifetime Spent in Anonymity

  1. I think that if something is your passion, you do not care if you get money or fame from it. Of course, it would probably be nice to get paid. I also think that if something is your passion, you do not necessarily see it as a possible income source because it feels (too) easy to do. But maybe we all should do the things that feel easy because we excel at them (and therefore, everyone does what they are best at => everyone loves their job => and the world becomes a better place).

  2. Interesting post! There are zillions of undiscovered creative geniuses. I think that many of those who “make it” or become famous generally have a connection of some sort that they can exploit. Those who became famous musicians had a family member who knew someone who had connections. A person who gets a first novel published had a close friend in the publishing industry. (I recently discovered hat Anthony Bourdain, one of my favorite writers and TV personalities who committed suicide some time ago, could not get anyone to read his first manuscript, Kitchen Confidential. It just so happens that Bourdain’s mom was a proofreader at the New York Times who had the contact information of some people who knew some people at The New Yorker, the magazine that ended up publishing a short version of what became Kitchen Confidential.) This may not be true elsewhere, but it is certainly true in the art world in America. Sorry to sound so jaded here, but the old saying (It’s not what you know but who you know) really does contain lots of truth.

    One more thing: Try to get an literary agent if you’re not a famous person or connected to a someone who knows someone. Just try and see what happens.

    One more thing: Americans are celebrity crazy. Publishers want to publish the writings of celebrities. They fall over themselves giving them recording contracts. They let them show their paintings in galleries while more talented artists can’t get through the front door.

    1. Your words are true also for Italy, I am afraid but we live in a small world. Children of film directors become film directors even though their films are so poor, children of actors become actor also with poor results. I cannot remember of any writers or artists’ children because maybe they haven’t been famous during their lives…but I must say that the old saying – it’s not what you know but who you know – it’s true here not only for the artistic world but also for the working world. Thank you for your comment!

  3. Fascinating post. Thank you. I am assuming the photo is one of Vivian Meyer’s.
    I have always assumed a true artist is driven to do their art no matter what is happening elsewhere in their life. It is a compulsion.
    I have been scratching my brain for the names of great artists who had other lives.

    Can anyone think.of any? The three I came up with: Grandma Moses the artist and Wallace Stevens the poet who worked as an insurance Executive. Oh and John Grisham who was a lawyer but he left his job when he became a bestselling writer. BTW is thst art or just writing for money. I don’t know.

  4. Good questions, Crisbie! I’ve been an invisible artist most of my life, and while it has its challenges, they aren’t insurmountable, just time consuming. I am indeed an artist, and do ‘ghost work’ for other artists and designers, some quite well known. I am not allowed legally to say Who. It’s not ‘cheating’ really, for them to hire another artist in most cases, because no one can do everything. I usually end up doing painting, but I’ve done sculpture for painters who have a desire to see an idea of theirs realized in sculptural form, and are willing to pay. The downside is that I have to put their name upon my work, so it’s an important exercise in checking my ego.
    That said, I hope that you do not feel any great hurry in defining yourself one way or the other, because that might change a lot between now and whenever, and you don’t want to be stuck under a title you no longer feel any connection with. Just do what you want, as much as you want, and submit things you feel proud of; poetry, blogs, spoken word performances,abstract tone poems…whatever!
    It makes me a little worried that you seem to be at a crossroads of having your purpose be helping others find their purpose, but seem to feel like you’re missing out on your own? The very question is its own answer though. Now I just confused myself! 🙂
    Anyway, anonymity for me has been a ‘mixed bag’, but overall something I have decided not to worry too much about, because there’s no point. Now I make art the best I can whenever I want, and don’t worry too much about posting it, and I don’t even have social media, so my website echoes, echoes…ech… e….

    1. You are right, defining oneself keeps changing all along your life. I don’t want to fit in one box forever, good piece of advice, well said. It is excellent that you do the beset you can whenever you want, I also do like that! Thank you for your inspiring comment!

  5. “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air.” – Thomas Grey

    It’s quite the coincidence our posts deal with essentially the dame dilemma, but from different perspectives. I can tell you I know of many brilliant artists whom I’ve had the privilege to work with who are as good at their crafts as anyone I’ve ever seen. It’s heartbreaking to think that there is so much unshared beauty in the world, but it’s also lovely to realize the world is filled with that beauty, widely viewed or not,

  6. Such an interesting post. Like Jack said so well, it’s a little heartbreaking to think that Vivian didn’t get the acclaim in life for her work and passion. But maybe that allowed her to do it without fearing the opinions of other people. Fascinating questions and a thought-provoking post. I love your creative blogging work and am glad you are I’ve gotten to know you through it!

    1. Interesting reflection when you say that somehow she took photos without fearing the opinions of others. I think she definitely worked more freely. Thank you for commenting!

  7. Thank you, Cristiana, for sharing another wonderfully rich post. If not for you, I would know nothing about the life of Vivian Maier and her passion and talent for photography. You’ve raised some deep questions, and I’d like to share a little about the third one (related to defining ourselves). From what you shared about not being sure how you would define yourself, I would offer that it seems that you definitely have a passion for sharing knowledge, blogging, and helping other people To go deeper than that, I would add that for me, a deep sense of purpose arose only when I let go of what I “thought” I should be doing, and listened to the subtle but persistent callings of my heart. What makes your heart sing?

    In my case regarding purpose, all became when I stopped trying to make “Art” great and became aware of an inner Greatness (in all of us, I believe) that desired to express Itself through the vehicle (the mask) that goes by my name. My aim is to help Beings reconnect with their innate greatness and then express that to the best of their ability. It’s taken years for recognition of this occur, but now, it is undeniable.

    Thank you again. I’ll be looking forward to your next post.

    1. What a wonderful comment, thank you! I think you are right regarding my passions! And I also think that you are doing great with your aim to help Beings reconnect with their innate greatness! Keep on doing that, you are doing it very well!

      1. I meant every word, Cristiana. Your writing has power—can feel “you” within the content. Thank you so much for your kind words!

  8. When I was in college a part of the required homework was to watch the doc, Finding Vivian Maier, and It still sticks with me. I went to school for digital cinematography, and now one of my bigger hobbies is shooting film photography. It’s crazy to think how much of her work wasn’t developed after she shot it. I think that alone really shows part of her character. She loved to do it, regardless of how it came out. There were photos she captured in a moment that, to her, only existed and disappeared once it was over. I like to think about that whenever I get caught up in getting the newest gear or acquiring more cameras. Would I still do this if no one ever saw it after I took it?

    1. It’s great that you know Vivian Maier from before! And I agree with you that she captured moments she only could see. Please, go on with your photography, maybe you can share it with us?

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