A pile of wood crates
We aren’t meant to ever witness lives in their totality. The long view smooths out the highs, fills in the lows, and reduces every effort to the mean. We come face to face with the overwhelming scale of existence, the futility of passion, the inconsequence of our work. We might call it beautiful, but it’s a terrifying beauty.
The life work of Vivian Maier raises these questions of what it all means, what’s the worth of doing whatever we think we do that has meaning.
Vivian Maier was a nanny. She was a photography enthusiast. For 50 years, she snapped photo after photo and when she was done, she had more than 100,000 negatives, most of them portraits of people she encountered on the street.
Only a fraction of the photos were ever printed. She never showed the photos to anyone.
She collected other things — scores of newspaper articles that she cut out and pasted into binders. Paper artifacts of this and that. Letters she wrote and written to her.
And by the end of her life, all of this work was boxed up and put away in self-store bins. When she got sick and stopped paying the monthly rent, all of the bins were auctioned off.
Do you know how that works? A notice goes out that the container of Bin XXX will be auctioned at 9am on Thursday morning for cash. A small crowd gathers. The door is rolled up. The contents are inspected visually. Bids are made blind. If you win, you have to cart the contents out or start paying rent new.
One morning, when the door was raised on Maier’s container bin, the people gathered around saw boxes stacked on boxes, filled with scores and scores of negatives.
A fitting metaphor for the artist’s folly, the ultimate inconsequence of creating, of trying to find permanence in our life?
I don’t think so.
I think Vivian Maier’s life may have been worthy of envy.
She had work to do and she did it unencumbered. A desire to capture what she saw, to make sense out of the patterns in life, to look again and see, was fulfilled. She found a vocation. The dialogue she had was personal and constant.
As I browsed through the photographs that her inadvertent archivist — whose story of discovery and obsession is more quixotic and dramatic than Maier’s — I found myself mulling over this photo of a pile of wood crates. The image provides a metaphor for what this woman experienced, I thought. In the repetition of similar things over a long period of time, she may have discovered something miraculous.
Life is a sequence of slightly varying circumstance; its richness comes from holding your position and tracking the change. The trick is learning how to stay alert, to pay attention, to look at each thing as if it were new. Vivian Maier had her viewfinder to remind her to pay attention. Each of us has to find our own tool, the process that helps us see what is right in front of us and notice how it changes. That is the lesson that I take from Vivian Maier, that if we can meld our watching and our doing we can imbue our life with meaning and make something new.