Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Nanny's Photographs

"Finding Vivian Maier"
Okay, so unless you’re an avid photographer, well no - a true photo nerd - you probably have not heard of the movie currently making the art house rounds called Finding Vivian Maier

The most succinct introduction to this topic is to quote the website

 “This intriguing documentary shuttles from New York to France to Chicago as it traces the life story of the late Vivian Maier, a career nanny whose previously unknown cache of 100,000 photographs has earned her a posthumous reputation as one of America’s most accomplished and insightful street photographers.”

So why am I writing about this in The Cemetery Traveler? Well, there's a strange connection here if you will allow me. I saw the movie a few weeks ago and it is more than just a documentary – it is almost a psychological thriller. In addition to being an amazingly talented street photographer, Vivian appears to have also been mentally disturbed. But then so was VanGogh. The reason I bring Maier up in this blog is because of a story related to me by an attendee on a photography tour of Mount Moriah Cemetery last year (Mount Moriah is in Southwest Philadelphia). Also because it is now May, and all the Catholic school children are receiving First Holy Communion. Stay with me on this. I’ll eventually tie it all together!

First, you might want to view the trailer of the movie, to get a better idea of what Maier was about. Click this link to view. The photo at the beginning of this blog is one of her many self-portraits; the young girl in the reflection is one of her charges. The image is titled "Self-Portrait, 1953," though Maier never titled her work. In fact she never even printed her negatives. As you will learn from the documentary, she even left thousands of exposed, undeveloped film behind after her death!

So back to the photo tour at Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery. The woman on the photo tour (who was in her sixties, as I recall) told me that her family lived across the street (Kingsessing Avenue and Cemetery Road) from Mount Moriah when she was around eight years old. This would have been in the 1960s, I suppose. Her parents had a nanny to take care of her and her brother. The brother was about the same age. Their nanny, it seems, was an avid photographer and would from time to time – I swear I’m not making this up – have the boy and girl dress in their white First Holy Communion outfits and walk over to the cemetery with her. Right in front of the old brownstone gatehouse, she would have the children lie on their backs – on graves – with their hands folded as if praying, and photograph them.

Ed Snyder (in green cap) giving tour of Mount Moriah Gatehouse
The photo above shows some of the headstones in front of the gatehouse, perhaps the same ones the nanny had the children lie near. The woman who relayed the story to me said nothing ever happened beyond that – she and her brother just thought it was a bit weird, but they were not afraid. As I listened to her story with my jaw dropped open, she delivered the knockout punch – she told me she still has the photos! The nanny gave them copies! Unfortunately, I lost contact with her and have never seen the photos, but how bizarre is that!

I thought of this situation while watching the movie Finding Vivian Maier, specifically toward the end of the film when it becomes evident that the quirky nanny may have been slightly deranged. One of Maier’s charges (now in her sixties) is interviewed and says that once she and her brother were with Maier and playing in the street when her brother got hit by a car! When the police and ambulance came, the nanny took pictures of the scene!

Image by Vivian Maier, New York City, 1954 (ref.)
Unlike the nanny who worked near Mount Moriah Cemetery, Vivian Maier never showed anyone her photographs. The work was only discovered after her death (in 2009) when the contents of her storage unit was auctioned off. A fascinating story, which is the origin of the documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier. I quote from the website:

Mount Moriah gatehouse as it appears now (2014)
“Vivian Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) was an American street photographer born in New York City. Although born in the U.S., it was in France that Maier spent most of her youth. Maier returned to the U.S. in 1951 where she took up work as a nanny and care-giver for the rest of her life. In her leisure however, Maier had begun to venture into the art of photography. Consistently taking photos over the course of five decades, she would ultimately leave over 100,000 negatives, most of them shot in Chicago and New York City. Vivian would further indulge in her passionate devotion to documenting the world around her through homemade films, recordings and collections, assembling one of the most fascinating windows into American life in the second half of the twentieth century.”