Rose Lichter-Marck’s “Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women” in The New Yorker
Vivian Maier worked as a nanny in Chicago between the nineteen-fifties and the nineteen-seventies. She took hundreds of thousands of photos in New York, France, South America, and Asia and, like some modern-day Emily Dickinson, she showed her artwork to almost no one. It was only after real-estate agent and amateur historian John Maloof found boxes of her photos at a garage sale in 2007 that her art and her life emerged. Rose Lichter-Marck reviews the new documentary film “Finding Vivian Maier” that tells this story.
In the film, Maier’s life is quirky, covert, and speaks volumes about the role of woman as artist and caregiver in the twentieth century. Although Maier was a nanny, she took on double identities to hide her artistic pursuits. The film includes interviews with Maier’s former employers. She was efficient, but she could be cruel and aloof. The now-grown children she served remember her hauling them to downtown Chicago where they watched in disbelief as she took thousands of shots of the same thing.
Lichter-Marck’s review of the film is powerful because she critiques the documentary even as she celebrates it. During one segment, Maloof (the real-estate agent who found the photos) asks: Why would someone in the position of a lowly nanny make photographic art? Why would she withhold that art from the world? Lichter-Marck knows why. She points out that domestic work should not be put in opposition to artistic vision, especially for women. “The photographer and the nanny evoke fantasies of invisibility that rely on the erasure of real labor, but for opposite ends,” she writes. “‘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.” Maier was an enigma: complex, difficult, solitary, insightful, and a caregiver. But, says Lichter-Marck, why can’t we accept that she lived the life she wanted and be grateful we have a record of her vision in her photographs?
I confess that my Kindle is stocked with Brainpickings’ Top 10 Writing Tips from a pantheon of famous writers; I have squinted for far too long at a barely decipherable infographic of writers’ sleep habits to discern whether or not I was waking up too late; I have measured my own possibilities for success against the cocktail preferences and bizarre rituals of my idols. I have carefully studied all of those “how to pitch” posts about getting your email subject line just right, and taken notes, and I am a disciple of the Longform podcast.
Here, Heather Havrilesky ignites my shame at the desperation, the absurdity of such emulation, in pure, spot-on awesomeness:
Clean, error-free copy is how you get the high-end writer gigs, and it’s also how every editor contacts you all the time and asks you to read a 500-page book and write 2000 words for a $300 check you’ll receive four months later. Boo-ya! See, when you’re an acclaimed critic and a fucking pro, you get paid $40k a year to do complicated theme-paper type assignments, instead of paying $40k a year. So there! See ya, wouldn’t wannna be ya!
Hers is a satire for all of us who’ve succumbed, hungrily, greedily, to the writer-sharing-her-secrets motif, or indulged in it ourselves:
Then I think about how my black Applebee’s polo shirt always smelled like nachos because I didn’t wash it often enough. See how I was thinking about a smell? That’s how you know I’m a real artist and not some fucking hack who writes light verse for The New Yorker. Artists can conjure a stinky odor using only their raw powers of imagination and long-term memory. That’s also how you know it’s time to write.
Kate Sweeney’s “Deep Blue Sea” in Oxford American
It’s hard not to fall immediately in love with a piece that kicks off, “Right now, dead Americans across the continent are being transformed into diamonds and ink drawings. Floramorial, a company in Illinois, will make you into plant fertilizer so that Aunt Maggie can feed her favorite rosebush for years to come.”
Sweeney strikes this surreal, jaunty tone from the outset in a piece about a subject usually approached with grave reverence: death and the rituals of memorialization that surround it. She stops short of outright snark, which could have soured this piece into predictable critique. Instead, her style mimics that of the distinctly American approach to death she profiles in the piece: upbeat, plucky, at times reminiscent and verging on the somber, then veering quickly (albeit with a wry undertone) back to optimistic vigor. All of this creates a mesmerizing, queasy effect; the reader isn’t sure whether to laugh, to be disturbed, or to feel touched when the “reef ball” – a bell-shaped mixture of cement and human ashes – of a New Jersey firefighter refuses to sink into the Atlantic until his wife shouts “Budweiser!”
There are many such moments in the piece, which are jarring without being exaggeratedly so – part of what Sweeney seems to want to question here is why we find them jarring: what are our own American presumptions about death and the appropriate way to ritualize it? Early on, she writes in an aside:
Yesterday, the company held a military honors ceremony in a nearby lot owned by a shrimp company to pay respects to the veterans among the deceased. Just after “Taps” was played for the last time, Brawley reminded all present that they could purchase some of the best shrimp in South Carolina right there. It struck me as a strange moment, tonally, but no one else seemed to notice.
Is this juxtaposition problematic? Is it okay to talk shrimp immediately after honoring the permanent departure of a human being? Sweeney isn’t sure, but her interrogations – via her observations on a trip she takes out to sea to watch the reef balls being dropped, and her own reactions to what she witnesses – make for fascinating and unsettling reading. —Sarah