Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Waste of Shame: The case of Vivian Maier

This weekend Penny and I saw a documentary that, as I reflect on it, has some curious correspondence to the authorship question. It's called Finding Vivian Maier, and it's about a secretive photographer who shot over 100,000 images during her long life but yet never revealed nearly any of her great works to anyone, whether friend or colleague or agent or auctioneer.

This phenomenal corpus was only brought to light when an archivist happened to discover some of her negatives. Struck by the singular nature of these images, he unearthed more and more of Maier's photos till he ultimately became her posthumous advocate and agent (as well as the director of the present film). 

As the documentary notes, Maier's body of work is arguably among the greatest of any American photographer in the 20th century. The immediacy and probity of her photos, piercing to the quick her subjects with a single stunning image, is often impossible to adequately convey with words. Overall it's a fascinating story well told. On its own merits, Finding Vivian Maier comes highly recommended. (Amazon / iTunes. Not on Netflix that I'm aware.) 

I mention it here, though, because it's also a mystery not unlike the authorship mystery behind another great artist. Namely, Finding Vivian Maier asks but does not answer a fundamental question behind the whole story: Why? 

Why would someone so clearly adept at taking stunning photos, an artist so singularly possessed, spend her whole life -- Emily Dickinson-like -- hiding her phenomenal talent and body of work? For paying work, Maier spent nearly her entire career as a nanny for various families mostly in the Chicago area. She would take her children with her on day trips into the city, photographing everything and everyone she encountered. 

It's not coincidental, I think, that Maier also took to concealing her identity using assumed names -- a storyline in the film that comes out briefly in the trailer. It's not a tremendous leap, one suspects, to go from an artist who conceals her work to an artist who conceals her name. 

It is further revealed that she concealed some darkness in her life too. Without providing any spoilers, I'll just note that Maier emerges from this film as an enigmatic, troubled and brooding figure. Was she disturbed by the mania that possessed her in her work? Was she shamed by the work itself somehow? Was she embarrassed by her related obsessive-compusive behaviors and neurotic tendency to hoard?

The answers are only dimly revealed. But I was struck by the similarly open questions one finds in the story of an author who seems also to have been compulsively driven to conceal his work and identity. In the Sonnets, the author bemoans his buried name (e.g. 72) and his tongue-tied art (66). But he's also drawn by the undertow of shame. ("I am shamed by that which I bring forth..."; "Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame...") 

So what is the nature of the author's shame? For those who see Edward de Vere as a conflicted, bisexual man battling his own erotic desires (esp. in the "Fair Youth" sonnets to the young man), one might appreciate how the enveloping shadows of shame might darken his consciousness. Then again, some see the author's self-guilt more stemming from, in the words of Sonnet 127, "beauty slandered by a bastard shame." Concealed blood relationships -- royal or otherwise -- they argue is at the core of the author's battles with shame. 

This post is not going to delve into that long-standing battle behind Oxfordian lines. But it may be worth considering this related story of an artist singularly possessed by his/her work, but who for whatever reasons could not reveal this work to anyone else. 

Are the artists' feelings of shame related to their drive to conceal their work? The case of Vivian Maier, while clearly different in obvious ways from the Shake-speare authorship question, does present a psychological profile of a great artist driven to bury and conceal. To the point of self-obliteration. 

Thankfully, in both cases, the forces of obliteration did not win in the end. The works survive, though many mysteries remain. 

1 comment:

Richard M. Waugaman, M.D. said...

Naturally, it makes me think of Emily Dickinson, who published only a very small number of her poems during her lifetime. And Fernando Pessoa left a huge trove of unpublished manuscripts when he died.