Monday, May 12, 2014

Vivian the Spy

Touching on the gendered aspects of the usual Vivian Maier narrative, akin to the thoughts of Pamela Bannos,  Rose Lichter-Mach writes about Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women for the New Yorker's blog:

For filmmakers, for her fans, and for the people who knew her when she was alive and now must reconcile that elusive figure with her posthumous reputation as an artist, Maier’s story is titillating precisely because of how it deviates from the familiar narratives about artistic aspiration. They can’t understand why she never put aside her profession for her passion. People who never saw her without a Rolleiflex around her neck express bewilderment that they were in the company of a great talent. (“She was a nanny, for God’s sakes.”)

In the film, domestic work is placed in opposition to artistic ambition, as if the two are incompatible. But are they? Street photographers are often romanticized as mystical flâneurs, who inconspicuously capture life qua life, who are in the world, but not of it. The help, like the street photographer, is supposed to be invisible. Menial tasks like child care have, historically, been relegated to working-class women, who give up domestic autonomy to live in intimate proximity to their employers while remaining employees. In the best circumstances, a nanny becomes a trusted member of the family and allows her identity and independence to be entwined with, even subsumed by, the people for whom she works. In the worst circumstances, she is expendable, replaceable; her bath-time instructions and dinnertime offerings and bedtime kisses are tasks just as easily completed by the helpers who precede or follow her. Both the photographer and the nanny evoke fantasies of invisibility that rely on the erasure of real labor, but for opposite ends. “Women’s work” is diminished and ignored while the (historically male) artist’s pursuit is valorized as a creative gift. Perhaps the nanny could be the perfect person to photograph the world unnoticed.
And this:
The people who knew her described an impenetrability that, even in retrospect, threatens the fantasy that people who choose to care for children are all hugs and rainbows. Her story suggests the unsympathetic possibility that a woman might choose something like nannying because it has an economic rather than emotional utility.... Maier challenges our ideas of how a person, an artist, and, especially, a woman should be. She didn’t try to use her work to accumulate cultural or economic capital. She was poor but uninterested in money... She didn’t marry or have children, and, when people mistakenly called her Mrs. Maier, she would reply, “It’s Miss Maier, and I’m proud of it.”

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