Friday, 11 April 2014

Vivian Maier Lost and Found: The next Emily Dickinson?

London lives up to its reputation. You get swallowed up here. You get consumed by its vastness, by its meandering twisted ways, roads and crescents. You get lost and found in its museums and pubs. You get occupied in markets and parks and lose time in the bars and theatres and live music venues. You are at once repelled by and drawn to its tourist traps, but mostly you are repelled. These things don't set London apart from any other great city on earth. I suppose its part of what makes them all great.

The last time I stopped through here  I was just a visitor which people like to say is the best way to interact with London. "It's a good place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there." I wandered the tourist trap of Oxford Street and was enticed by a sign which read, "Photographer's Gallery". I followed the arrow to find it was closed for renovations but over a year later when we finally moved here I penciled in a visit and told my wife with all the authority of an insider "I know this really cool gallery. We have to check it out."

The exhibition had promise, Warhol, Lynch and Burroughs, but didn't live up to the hype. First off was Andy Warhol who is consistent if nothing else. His snapshots of what I would sum up as American Moments were about as interesting as staring at a can of tomato soup*. There were a couple of genuinely funny shots. For the first time I realized that he did have a pretty good sense of humour. And in the interest of fairness perhaps I have to thank Andy Warhol for his depiction of absurd everyday things because without it would there be a Martin Parr ( One photograph was taken on the streets of New York during an early gay pride parade which is cool but it was out of focus and crooked, hence I pictured him slurping a milkshake with one hand and with the other taking the half-assed, albeit historic photo. Hearing art scholars lament his influence and tell me I need to understand the context of his work is so patronising and about as original as another dozen cans of soup; they're repeating what they're told. That's just what art scholars do.

Ascending to the top floor, Lynch's black & white shots of factories were tired and disappointing considering his cinematic work with a couple exceptions. I wish I could say more.

Burroughs, don't even get me started. Too late. Have you ever tried to read Naked Lunch? I'm told I need to read some of his other stuff too but it was pretty much impenetrable. And I wanted so bad to like him. I loved Ginsberg and Kerouac but Burroughs escaped me. And like his writing I found the collection of polaroids that took up an entire floor completely gratuitous, self indulgent, and an offensive use of space. Look at me go, attacking another American legend. I guess I'm just jelly.

What happened next is the reason I'm even bothering to mention these guys. Context. You need context. We did the thing my close personal friend Banksy would make fun of me for, we went to the bookshop in the basement. There on a table I saw a beautiful cloth bound book of Vivian Maier's self portraits. I had no context. I knew nothing about her but the cover caught my eye and I paused before I turned open the cover because I felt like I had found something special. I had. And I'd also found a kindered spirit because like her, I've been employing a similar approach to self portraits for as long as I've been interested in the photography as art. Sometimes when I'm shooting part of me is in the frame, a shadow, a reflection or a bit of my foot, and sometimes rather than situate myself so this doesn't happen I keep it, like a signature or proof that I'm there. I do it on purpose sometimes instead of a selfie. I don't want a picture of myself. Besides, selfies are awkward and prove that you're in love with yourself. I looked at the price, my eyes watered briefly knowing she died poor, lonely and unrecognized and that some jackass hipster somewhere was making a killing. A few weeks later my birthday rolled around and for outliving Jesus, my wife presented me the book of self-portraits I couldn't shut up about. It is haunting, almost too beautiful for words. A photo, as they say, is worth a thousand of them, a conservative estimate in this case. I could go on all day but for in the interest of brevity, what I will say is what I get personally from the self-portraits of Vivian Maier. Vivian's work hearkens back to a time without ringtones, before ubiquitous mobile distraction, before the interconnectedness we now share and younger generations take for granted. They are personal, like diary entries I don't know if I should be looking at. They are existential affirmations of the space she embodies and reassurance that she was there. I for one identify. Sometimes the city swallows you up. You become a face in the crowd, alone with nothing but your own perspective.

*As an aside, I did enjoy "Lady Warhol" by Christopher Makos a series of portraits of Andy in drag which we wandered into at MOMA in Sao Paolo, the success of which was mostly thanks to the masterful eye of Makos and some exemplary curation where Warhol himself was the subject.

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