The Woman in the Mirror: A Personal Essay on Vivian Maier

It is 1953. Vivian Maier walks the streets of New York. As she passes an antique dealer, an old mirror catches her reflection and throws it back at her. With her Rolleiflex around her neck, she takes a moment to pause and permanently fix the image she sees on film. Holding the camera at waist height, she does not meet her own gaze in the mirror, glancing slightly upwards instead; timid, earnest, almost child-like. On this day, she is wearing a structured, oversized jacket and her hair is pinned neatly to one side. Behind her, a fire escape chases skywards. In a second mirror, titled slightly upwards, towering apartment blocks soar out of view. In this concrete jungle, Maier is small and alone.

Looking closely at the photo, the photographer appears twice. Her black silhouette casts a shadow across the window. It’s a double portrait of a single subject. This is a common trope in Maier’s photography. Each time the mirror lured her (which was often), she played with how the camera could multiply and manipulate her image. Sometimes she appeared twice, even three times, within a frame. Other times, she fractured her body into numerous shards. Her self-portraits are rarely straightforward as she habitually estranged her own image. Abigail Solomon Godeau speculates that Maier’s camera eye and subjective I are entwined. Looking at Maier’s self-portraits, I agree. I cannot help but wonder if Maier turned her camera towards the mirror to make communion with the women who stared back. 

Maier’s identity has been the subject of public speculation and intrigue. Since the film negatives of this clandestine photographer were discovered in a storage locker in 2007, academics have relentlessly pursued traces of her personal life. Art historians, archivists, genealogists and filmmakers have all probed the depth of her secretive past, hoping to fill the voids in her biography. A nanny all her adult life, Maier shared very little about herself with those around her, often taking refuge behind the locked door of her private quarters. Until the discovery of her hidden archives, no one knew the magnitude of her photographic work, an oeuvre consisting of over one hundred and fifty thousand negatives. John Maloof, one of the main proprietors of Maier’s work, revels in the confessional quality of self-portraiture, it’s ‘a tradition with an ancient vintage’ he said, it ‘tells us both how [the photographer] viewed themselves as well as how they viewed the world around them’. Yet, I do not believe there is much transparency in Maier’s self-portraits. Together, with the remnants of her past, they conjure a very enigmatic character: someone eccentric, reclusive and seemingly asexual. For Solomon-Godeau, the obsession with pinning down Maier’s identity constitutes an act of ‘posthumous reconstruction, if not invention’. Fictions rush to fill the gaps in our understanding, with one documentary even portraying her as a magical Mary Poppins. Mysterious in life, she is even more unknowable in death but this does not stop the hunt for a definitive Vivian Maier. Yet what use are our efforts to locate the Maier if she was looking deep into the mirror searching for herself? 

The mirror, according to Simone de Beauvoir, is an invaluable tool that enables women to negotiate the female condition, especially the metamorphosis from girl to woman. She embeds her ideas in the theories of Jacque Lacan. For Lacan, the child develops an ego when they recognise their own reflection alienated in the mirror. With this strange encounter, they are able to transcend their body and become autonomous subjects. By confronting the child with their own subjectivity, the mirror catapults them on an odyssey of self-discovery, helping them to understanding their place within the world. De Beauvoir agrees that this traumatic experience of alienation is a constitutive part of identity but her theory goes further. She believes that the process of self-identification is only resolved when the alienated image (the alter ego, the double) is reintegrated back into the body. For the little boy, she suggests, this is a relatively simple process, as his penis is ‘admirably suited to the role of idealised alter ego’: it is both part of himself and other than himself, like ‘a personal totem pole’. For the little girl however, without an adequate means to reintegrate her alter ego into her body, the process is more fraught. She will spend her life caught between her ‘transcendent subjectivity and complicated and ambivalent alienation’.  Time and again, this will draw her to the mirror, desperate to enact the dialectical move that will integrate her alter ego back into her body. Without the reunion of her ego and alter ego, her subjectivity is destined to hover between her body and the mirror.  To reunite with the alter ego is not as simple as recognising a static image in the mirror but ‘a complex and mobile process’. 

When we see Maier standing in front of the bathroom mirror, it is easy to lay de Beauvoir’s ideas over the image. On the left hand side of the image, Maier perches on the edge of the sink, her Rolleiflex set up on a tripod. She holds the tripod with one hand, and secures the camera with the other. On the right hand side, see appears again, reflected in a second mirror. A hard divide in this mirror splits her face in two, reproducing her reflection in a peculiar, fragmented way. It is hard to isolate Maier, the subject, in this image. The photographer and her double diverge, starring off in opposite directions. It is an apt symbol of the unreconciled tension between Woman and her other, a part of herself alienated and estranged in her mirror. (Marry Poppins analogies are actually quite fitting here). We will never know what Maier thought or felt as she held this pose or why she was compelled to frame this photo as she did. Yet, given how few negatives she developed during her lifetime, we can assume that the act of taking photos was more valuable to her than their public dissemination. Hidden behind her bathroom door, she took a private moment to contemplate her reflection, using her camera to scrutinise her outward appearance. The photo is an incidental record of a self-contained exercise in contemplation, an exercise that was fully realised the moment Maier framed the photo and released the shutter. By enacting the role of observer and observed, she confronts her own subjectivity, participating in the mobile process of self-identification. As the unintended audience of this image, we are voyeurs onto an intimate negotiation; a reflexive and witty yet melancholic search for a finer understanding of self. (It is worth considering the ethics of this voyeurism, as Maier’s private records become public artefacts beyond her control).

In the catalogue of the 1987 MoMA exhibition Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960, the curator John Szarkowski described photos as mirrors and windows: some look outward onto the world with a degree of objectivity whilst others reflect romantically back on the photographer. Maier, who unwittingly used both mirrors and windows throughout her work, straddled both modes. Sometimes she looked outward, photographing the people and architecture of New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles. And other times, as with her self-portraiture, she turns inwards. Her contact sheets illustrate how quickly she oscillated between these two modes. One sheet, for instance, shows a self-portrait alongside photos a blind-man and his dog, a pair of shoes and a sleeping drunkard. There is no separation between her portraits of others and those of herself; they are part of the same process, the same thought. Martha Rosler, a fellow photographer, once said she always hoped to meet herself ‘going around a corner’. Seeing herself from the outside, she argued, would enable her to bridge together experience and abstraction, to rupture the ‘surface of the ordinary’ and let truth emerge organically. Maier had many chance encounters with herself, photographing her disembodied reflection throughout New York. When Maier encountered her reflection she also encountered an abstracted idea of herself. With her camera at the ready, she approached her reflection the same way she approached all other subjects. But whether this ruptured the surface of her ordinary world and allowed truth to emerge will always remain a private secret.

Reflecting on the work of Robert Frank, Blake Stimson asks if his series The Americans ‘contribute to our knowledge of anything other than the personality of Robert Frank’. Even though Frank’s camera was always trained on others, his vision of the world was so particular that his subjectivity came to bear on these photos. Rather than acting as a detached observer, he was always negotiating his position in relation to his subjects, unable to ignore how ‘the world outside expressed his sense of self inside’. ‘I’m always looking outside, trying to look inside’, he confided. Stimson urges us to see that Frank positioned himself at the centre of his practice ‘so that his own instability or vulnerability become a central component of what was photographed’.  When Maier turned her camera towards the streets, her subjects tended to be those on the margins of society. As an outsider herself, it is interesting to consider whether, like Frank, she constituted herself in relation to those she fixed on film. Moving dynamically between street photography and self-portraiture, for Maier, the two genres were part of the same reflex. This leads to the question whether Maier used photography to affirm her place within the social landscape. In photos, such as this one, where she appears in the mirror alongside other pedestrians of downtown New York, she announces her presence in their world. Stimson believes that Frank’s encounter with his subjects were ‘first and foremost…encounter[s] with his own inability to engage [them] adequately, and it was the anguish born of that inadequacy that served as a pivot, that drove his project from one image to the next and the next, giving it its epic dimension and its exemplary essay form’.  The volume of Maier’s work suggests that she was also driven by compulsion. By photographing the urban margins, was she hoping to find a sense of clarity about her position in the world in relation to them? Did she find herself plagued by the same sense of inadequacy as Frank to capture her subjects, be it herself or other people? And, what relation does this have, if any, to the deeply secretive nature of her practice? Did photography belong to a private odyssey of self-discovery?

In interpreting Maier’s photographs, it is important to remember that she never intended for them to be received by a wider audience. In Landscape/View: Photography’s Discursive Space, Rosalind Krauss argues that it is precarious to analyse photography using the same criteria as art, as it assumes that photography has the same degree of ‘authorship, intentionality and…internal coherence or unity’. Maier never discussed her photos, and without a conceptual framework to make meaning from her practice, our interpretations of her work will always be speculative. The afterlives of Maier’s negatives have grown beyond anything she could have imagined and it is our responsibility, as custodians of her legacy, to resist mythologising and pathologising her. Given that her photographs are being reproduced by private collectors and commercial galleries, whose vision or aesthetic is being represent anyway? Instead of trying to pin down her identity, I believe that it is necessary to respect her enigmatic character and allow traces of her elusive identity to elude us. Her work reminds us of the many ways that we are unknown to ourselves, constantly negotiating our position with others.

Browsing through the bric-a-brac at Mauer Park one Sunday, I stumbled upon some antique mirrors hung haphazardly on a temporary wall. Walking past them, my reflection bounced off each surface, multiplying my image by three. In that moment, I saw myself as Maier so often saw herself, as many faces all at once. Charmed by the coincidence, I composed a photo. It was a fascinating process to reenact. In the photo, I fix my gaze in one mirror but another catches me off centre. A third, resting on the ground, reflects my torso, but it is distorted and blurry. In life, we never full appear to ourselves as we really are. The magic of the mirror shows us our reflection in ways we would otherwise never see, but even then it is in reverse. Maier’s photography exposes the fickle distinction between truth and fiction, as the stories that we tell ourselves so easily contradict those that others attribute to us. These divergences are inevitable and our identities are always multiple. The unknowability of Maier’s true identity makes that clear. The stories others project onto us are only as valuable as we make them, and it is worthwhile, like Maier, turning to the mirror occasionally to remind ourselves that we know, or are as close as anyone to knowing, the true person who stares back.

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