Patricia Highsmith in Ticino

The-Two-Faces-of-January-quad-posterThe latest in a long line of films based on a Patricia Highsmith novel has been released: The Two Faces of January. Highsmith’s 1964 novel is about an American couple in Greece hijacked by a young American interloper – one of those pretty-boy confidence tricksters she specialised in. The film adaptation recreates the trappings and setting of the earlier Talented Mr Ripley – linen costuming, retro sunglasses, cafe terraces, the dolce far niente of Fulbright wannabes abroad in Europe. I thought the new film was too much in a tired vein – like recent Woody Allen films set in Europe. The eye candy loses its flavour as it keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Patricia Highsmith's house in Tegna, by architect Tobias Ammann

Patricia Highsmith’s house in Tegna, by architect Tobias Ammann

I’m writing this in Tegna, in Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton, Ticino. It’s the village where Highsmith lived out the last years of her life, in the Vallemaggia, a narrow, rocky valley behind Locarno. Her ashes are immured in the cemetery and her famously bunker-like house is down the road.

By the time Highsmith returned to live in Switzerland in the early eighties, the best was behind her. The later books are hit and miss, formulaic, but she was rich from the movie rights. At one point the BBC was considering a $100,000 deal to adapt the four Ripley novels as a television series. The famous cool style had begun to wear thin, to become plain speaking, in the Texan manner. Alcohol, present from the start, had hardened her looks. French tax inspectors and Mitterrand’s socialists had her scurrying to Switzerland. Here she lived out the last thirteen years of her life in miserly wealth, poor health and alcoholism.

Patricia Highsmith at home in Aurigeno.

Patricia Highsmith at home in Aurigeno.

She bought a tall stone house in the hamlet of Aurigeno in the Vallemaggia. On a sunny day the deep cleft can be sparkling and magical but for much of the year it is lightless and forbidding. In a late story about a land dispute between the local priest and a farmer, “A Long Walk From Hell”, published originally in French, she described her situation: “a land of mountains that block the sun, a land of granite outcroppings, of trees that cling to the slanting hillsides, but nevertheless grow straight up.”

Vallemaggia in Switzerland's Ticino

Vallemaggia in Switzerland’s Ticino

She intended to divide her time between homes in France (two of them, as well as a cottage in Sussex, England) and Switzerland, to comply with favourable tax arrangements. Highsmith wrote to a friend that President Mitterrand was going “to make life increasingly difficult for anyone who earns more than a postman”. In 1988, she wrote to an old lover, Marijane Meaker:

When you make a lot of money you get suspicious. Did I tell you that Bloomsbury liked my latest Ripley so much they gave me an advance that in American money comes to about $115,000? I never got that much for a book. You know, in the U.S. no one really recognises me, but in Europe I’m often recognised and treated like a celebrity.

The villages of the Ticino, subject to seasonal migration, had fed emigration to California during the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries. Ticinese farmers, initially attracted by the gold rush, began supplying dairy products to San Francisco. As Switzerland prospered, the Centovalli sheltered second homes of city dwellers, wealthy foreigners and artists. “The Ticino is also a mysterious place,” wrote Highsmith, “composed of a lot of granite said to have a magnetic effect, draining one’s energy.”

The three floors of cellars underneath the living quarters were a metaphor for Highsmith’s unconscious. Her work is full of burials and drownings, criminal urges behind a façade of charm and civility. In The Two Faces of January we get a murder in the catacombs of some Greek ruins on Knossos. Highsmith enjoyed showing her cellars to visitors. “There were three of them. One for cheese – there was no cheese. And one for jambon – no jambon. It was a Highsmith cellar – probably cadavers,” said Josyane Savigneau.

Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train was based on Highsmith's first novel.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train was based on Highsmith’s first novel.

Highsmith had always been interested in houses. Guy, the protagonist of Strangers on a Train, is a prize-winning architect. Ripley plays lord of the manor in modernist swank in France. Highsmith was drawn to the clean spare lines of the Bauhaus. Her own houses, however, were singularly uncomfortable and badly chosen. No one, including their owner, ever seems to have had a good time in them.

After six years in Aurigeno, Highsmith moved down the valley to Tegna, to the last of her many houses, commissioned from architect Tobias Amman. In January 1953, on her first trip through Switzerland, she had written:

 Someday, perhaps, I shall have a house built of rock, a house with a name – Hanley-on-the-Lake, Bedford on the River, West Hills, or plain Sunny Vale. Something. So even without my own name on the envelope letters will reach me, because I and only I shall be living there. But that can never make up for these years of standing in line at American Express offices from Opera to Haymarket, Naples to Munich.

Casa Highsmith had a functional foursquare look, with the “French windows” she repeatedly notes in her fiction as a marker of class. She showed photos of it to Marijane Meaker. “I designed it myself, which I hope qualifies me as an artist, since I don’t have my sketchbooks with me. I had help from a prominent architect whose name probably isn’t familiar here.” Meaker thought the “windows seemed like lookout slits in the side of an old fort”. They faced a garden where the ailing Highsmith liked to potter. In a radio interview she mentions planting American corn and fraises des bois or wild strawberries. Her go-to coffee table book was A Color Atlas of Forensic Pathology. No wonder her few visitors were eager to leave, probably heading to the nearest restaurant for a square meal.

Hotel Garni Barbate in tegna, where Hanna Arendt stayed each year.

Hotel Garni Barbate in Tegna, where Hanna Arendt stayed each year.

Tegna had another illustrious resident, summering for two weeks every year: the philosopher Hanna Arendt, who stayed at the Barbatè guesthouse (highly recommended). Though Arendt died in 1975, it would be tempting to bring these two survivor women together in a garden conversation, overlooking the mountain landscape: one the mistress of crime, the other the author of the phrase “the banality of evil”. What would they say to each other? They probably wouldn’t get on. Highsmith was anti-Semitic, for a start.

Patricia Highsmith's trusty Olympus typewriter at the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern

Patricia Highsmith’s trusty Olympus typewriter at the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern

The Swiss Literary Archives contain a cache of Highsmith’s pseudonymous letters to newspapers railing against minorities of every stripe. Other letters are addressed to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III or to Senator Bob Dole. They reveal a mind much exercised by the state of Israel and the Palestinian problem, but also careful to protect its privileged sanctuary in Switzerland and hoping to acquire citizenship. Highsmith used a revolving set of pseudonyms: Eddie Stefano, Janet Tamagni, Prissila Appleby, A Proudfoot Grasshopper. At one point she is upbraiding Vice President Dan Quayle on his spelling mistakes. She called them Quayle droppings – “I liked his about “wishing he’d studied Latin harder, so he could talk with the folks in S. America.”’ Clearly, the racism and misogyny of these letters arises from the writer’s own conflicted identity. She was “a great hater,” as one friend said.

In a short 1989 essay “Of Time and the Country Life,” Highsmith appreciated the different rhythms of the Ticino. She missed the American cocktail hour, the French apéritif, that break from the solitude of a day’s writing. She was clear-eyed and unsentimental about the effect of country life on women around her:

In the small towns in this area, it is not the done thing for women to congregate in the local bar or café at 9 p.m., women presumably always having something to do at that time, and at home too. In brief, the married woman with children in the Tessin countryside is at the beck and call of husband and all the children, possibly even the elderly in-laws, round the clock. She is car-driver, cook, shopper, house-cleaner, seamstress, hostess, nurse.

The garconne Highsmith in 1942, photo by Rolf Tietgens

The garconne Highsmith in 1942, photo by Rolf Tietgens

By the time she pitched up in Tegna, her garconne looks had hardened to those of a Red Indian squaw. Alert to race as any Southerner, her ‘swarthy’ looks had always given pause. She had interrogated the family tree for black ancestry, a ‘touch of the tar brush’. The archives contain substantial material on the Coates and Stewart family histories, but little investigation of her father’s German ancestry.

One of the Columbia University notebooks Highsmith wrote in all her life.

One of the Columbia University notebooks Highsmith wrote in all her life.

She wrote every day at her trusty, much-travelled 1956 Olympia Deluxe typewriter, kept abreast of correspondence, noted ideas and dreams. On Desert Island Discs she described her writing day in a characteristically cagey, cool voice, completely diffident, its Texan inflections tempered by European swagger: eight typewritten pages per day, mostly written in the afternoon over four or five hours. She needed three drafts to get it right: “I don’t write very smoothly in first draft… I write action passages fast, but what comes after might need a mood change. I retype my books two and a half times. I like retyping for neatness and polish, not style. Style does not interest me in the least – emotion is worth more than the intellect.”

Her chosen desert island book was Moby Dick, and she would take writing materials with her. All parsimony and industry, she reminds one of the Scotch-Irish on her mother’s side, the Stewarts, descended from a Presbyterian minister, with lineage pretensions back to James II. On her father’s side, the Plangmans and Hartmans, she was Prussian – no levity there either. This didn’t prevent her from noting similar qualities in the Swiss: ‘Ah, the tidy, thrifty, law-abiding Swiss! Uptight! Why else did the Swiss have the highest drug-abuse rate per capita in the drug-abusing world – meaning the world?”

In a brief piece about foreigners living in Switzerland, for the Crédit Suisse bulletin, she was characteristically impersonal and disingenuously shallow:

How do I perceive Switzerland? Perhaps as many an American who has not been to Switzerland sees it: as an orderly country famous for mountains, good watches, cheese, candy and cleanliness. I have now lived in the Ticino for a few years, a region which may be less formal than Zurich or Bern areas, but still the pavements and gutters of Locarno are not littered with discarded paper cups, broken bottles and empty cigarette packets…

The elementary and high school levels of school here seems streets ahead of America’s – though I realise that America has perhaps the finest post-graduate schools in the world…

Another image comes when I think of arriving from somewhere at Zurich airport, weary and with hand luggage, walking towards passport control. Ten or more figures, most of them solitary businesspeople with briefcases, stroll towards the two control booths. Nobody talks. The dark marble floor shines, unlettered. It is like a well-cared-for living room, in fact.

Switzerland is something like a club. Perhaps not everyone would want to join, but for those who like order and the quiet life, Switzerland is the place to be.

Daniel Keel, her editor at Diogenes, remembers visiting her at Tegna a few months before her death in February 1995. Uncharacteristically, she had asked for chocolate cake, which he picked up from Sprüngli in Zurich’s Bahnhof, before boarding the train for Ticino. Their work done, Highsmith opened the box and both editor and writer stared at the cake. It was coffin-shaped – one of Sprüngli’s finest. He was mortified, and knew that she knew. It was a macabre moment, typical of the morbidity of her work.

Sprungli's famous coffin-shaped chocolate cake.

Sprungli’s famous coffin-shaped chocolate cake.

Three days before she died, she was still fiddling with her will. She died alone in the hospital in Locarno. She was cremated in Bellinzona and her ashes immured in the columbarium of the little Catholic cemetery in Tegna. She hated Catholics. Friends and admirers, many belonging to the Jewish New York publishing world, the cinema world of the post-war decades, packed the church. They brought flowers. Highsmith hated flowers too. They came to remember an anti-Semite of long standing. This mean-spirited, tight-wad crime writer bequeathed her millions to the writers’ colony, Yaddo, in upstate New York, where over forty years before she had written her first novel Strangers on a Train. Rumour has it millions more are gathering dust and compound interest in the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands. This “jaded, butch,
 Scotch-soaked lady novelist” who nobody much liked, was laid to rest.

Patricia Highsmith's last resting place in Tegna cemetery.

Patricia Highsmith’s last resting place in Tegna cemetery.

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Les rencontres d’Arles (3): Actes Sud

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Nothing more disappointing than finding one of your favourite bookshops has gone. This was the case for me with The Village Voice in Paris. I hadn’t been in the city for a couple of years. It was a shock to find the finest English-language bookshop closed for business. Odile Hellier was always very welcoming. Several decades ago and in another century, she effected an introduction to Edmund White, one of my favourite writers. The readings by the likes of Richard Ford and Raymond Carver on the mezzanine floor were always packed. You could pick up and browse the little magazines when you didn’t have the money to buy them. I was living in Asia for most of the eighties and nineties, and so it was a pit stop for books before boarding the plane.

Actes Sud bookshop and publishing house on the Place Nina-Berberova, Arles

Actes Sud bookshop and publishing house on the Place Nina-Berberova, Arles

Actes Sud in Arles seems to be thriving – but you never know. It’s a French-language bookshop which was particularly bustling during the photography festival. It must be the only bookshop in the world with a Tauromachie section – bullfighting. In the warren of books you will also find a North African hammam, with women-, men-only and “mixed couple” hours and days, serving mint tea. There are two cinemas showing art-house films. The documentary Finding Vivian Meier was featured last week. Out on the pavement facing the Rhône there’s the usual cafe that becomes a restaurant at meal times.

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But it’s also a publishing house, one of the few outside Paris with clout and savvy. They publish many Anglophone writers in translation and a healthy stable of home-grown talent – Laurent Gaudé (Prix Goncourt 2004), the Irish writer John Banville, as well as more abstruse intellectual journals.

A major new addition to Arles is the Fondation Vincent van Gogh which opened its doors earlier this year. Van Gogh painted some of his best known canvases in and around Arles. The ‘Yellow House’ in particular can still be visited on the Place Lamartine.

Van Gogh, The Yellow House, 1888

Van Gogh, The Yellow House, 1888

The exhibition space feels a bit cramped at times. It is formed by joining two old houses via a striking glass-roofed atrium. The lifts, staircases, wheelchair access, white cube rooms with their security guards feel crammed in. There’s a wonderful view of the Arles roofscape, which hasn’t much changed from Vincent’s time, from the flat roof terrace.

New roof, old roof, Fondation Vincent van Gogh, Arles

New roof, old roof, Fondation Vincent van Gogh, Arles

The exhibition places van Gogh’s work in a number of contexts – Northern European realism, Impressionism, Japanese prints. Van Gogh’s approach to colour developed quickly under the sun. The other art tends to be upstaged by the mad master’s vivacity. I really liked Camille Corot’s Un Chemin dans les Bois de St. Cloud, 1862, because it reminded me of a walk there in 1979-80. Same dark woods, forest light, dank underfoot.

Van Gogh’s delicate sketch in oils, Impasse des Deux Frères, 1887, with its mobile puppet theatre and the wings of the Moulin des Trois Frères in the background – also recalled old Montmartre days. French flags flying. Creamy white light. Trees skeletal. Snow underfoot.

Van Gogh, Impasse des Deux Freres

Van Gogh, Impasse des Deux Frères, 1887

It’s a pity the gift shop is full of baubles and tchotchkes – the yellow house on your iPad cover. An iPhone case with a detached ear printed on it gave me some pause. Like coffee shops the world over, museum shops are more and more homogenised tat. Restaurants and language have gone that way too, with the over-use of formulaic statements and fashion food dressed up as gourmet – a chiffonade of this, a smear of that. Have a nice day!

Arles rooftops

Arles rooftops

And then out into the bright air by the Rhône. The streets were full of designer wear and the clopping of good shoes on cobbles. People with ID tags round their necks. The lovely stone.

Le contre-jour, Arles

Le contre-jour, Arles


Street art, Arles 2014

Street art, Arles 2014

 

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Lost & Found: Vivian Maier

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Self-portrait 1971, Chicago

What does it mean when we champion somebody? What goes on when a writer or other artist speaks to us so clearly we want to shout about it to the world? What affinities are set up?

Art occupies the margin of most lives, not the centre. It’s a pastime, an entertainment. Busy making money, busy with the pram in the hallway, keeping marriages afloat, people save their souls by other means. It’s the icing, not the cake.

My discovery of the work of Vivian Maier last year reignited these old questions. About the day job, and what confers meaning. About a lifetime minding other people’s kids, in the nursery, in the academy. About the loneliness of the long distance artist. What does it mean to be successful posthumously by the skin of your teeth? Why take photos for fifty years and never show them? How did Vivian Maier keep her eye fresh as she went about the drudge work, pushing the stroller? As a recent BBC documentary about her photographs puts it: “It’s a classic parable of the artist, unsung in life.”

Vivian Meier in the Hautes Alpes

Vivian Meier in the Hautes Alpes

Many who knew Maier thought she was French, French Alsatian, or Austrian. She moved among them like a ghost. But in fact she was born in New York City. Her English was accented, and to my ear more German accented than French. These things morph. She spent her formative years in an Austro-Hungarian household in the Bronx. After that in the French Hautes Alpes region, at the edge of what is now the Écrins national park, in the villages of Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur and Saint-Julien-en-Champsaur.

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Vivian Meier age 7 in Saint-Julien en Champsaur

From 1932, age seven, to 1938, and from 1949 through to her mid-twenties, she was part of this poor mountain community. She belonged to her mother’s place, yet looked at it from outside as a young American. Vivian’s character retained the hardy, perhaps even hard, qualities of mountain farmers. She would have wanted to fit in, to claim kinship with the old country. But you can never go home again. She was familiar with Alpine seasons, crops and chores in a way that the well-to-do Jewish community of Chicago’s North Shore, where she nannied, was not.

Vivian’s family seems to have been fractured in untold ways. Her mother was illegitimate, born Maria Jaussaud in Saint-Julien, to a girl on the threshold of sixteen. It was one of those shameful village scandals, common the world over, that eventually righted itself. Maria’s father was a young farmhand on the estate of Beauregard, the maternal homeplace. Maria and her mother emigrated to the US when the girl was seventeen. Both of them worked as maids. We see here a fairly standard picture of emigration with complex, not atypical, motives behind it.

The estate of Beauregard in the commune of Saint-Julien en Champsaur, which Vivian Meier eventually inherited from her maternal grand-aunt

 

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Vivian Meier, age 7, with her mother Maria Jaussaud, and cousin Sylvain Jaussaud. 1933.

Vivian’s father, Charles Maier, was Austro-Hungarian by birth. Records indicate present-day Sopron in Hungary. Given the name, they were probably Swabian by ethnicity, and so German-speaking. His family emigrated to the US in 1905. Vivian had a brother, also called Charles, two years her junior. They spent their early years in the household of her paternal grandparents on East 76th. Street in New York’s Bronx. The adults all worked small jobs – butchery, matron in an orphanage, grocery boy. Vivian became the third generation of live-in domestic help on her mother’s side. Maids of all work. Throughout her life she identified with the underclass, parking her camera where they could be seen, by turns empathetic and dispassionate in her regard. She was socialist in a way that seems to have been killed off in America. Walker Evans, Steinbeck, the dustbowl ballads: these are the company she keeps. She liked to walk her charges on the wrong side of town, where the poor people were, among the bums on skid row, snapping away. On one occasion she took children in her care to the slaughterhouses, to watch sheep being herded from the stock cars.

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Her parents’ marriage seems to have come apart early. Vivian, as far as we can tell, had little sustained contact with members of her family in adulthood. It comes as a shock to learn that her mother lived on in New York until 1975. We don’t yet know how much she kept in touch with her brother Charles.

She was non-practising Catholic, stridently socialist, feminist and eccentric. A strong character – a strong woman. She believed Americans smiled too much – that no-nonsense French farming background again. It strikes me that she was only partly assimilated to American niceties. John Maloof tells how she would cook a cow tongue as her introductory meal for the families for whom she worked: not designed to endear, but a witty statement nonetheless.

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I take a perverse pleasure in imagining Vivian serving up this macabre Babette’s feast. She would first have had to secure the beef tongue from the butcher’s or, better and cheaper, fresh from the abattoir. She would boil it with bay leaf, some juniper berries, and use the boiling water for the stock: beef bones would be best, the stock thickened with their marrow, some flour and, of course, paprika. A little paprika could go in the batter as well. Slice the tongue thickly, dip it in batter, deep fry. Serve with Hungarian dumplings and the brown sauce. I am thinking here of the wonderful bone marrow dishes of Gyula Krúdy. Or the Bodengeschmack of Franz Maier-Bruck’s recipes – perhaps a distant relative. The culinary earthiness of Vivian’s triple inheritance – Alpine, Swabian, Hungarian – has come of age. Boiled Beef Tongue à la Hongroise, using a recipe picked up from her butcher grandfather. I would have no nonsense at the table. Milk for the kids – their Norman Rockwell expressions, on best behaviour for the new nanny. But a Soproni Kékfrankos – Pinot Noir – for the adults. Or better still an Egri Bikavér – Bull’s Blood. Force it down their throats. Force the tongue down their throats too. None of that North Shore genteel.

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Her political and social awareness, her curiosity about other cultures, was phenomenal for someone nannying through the tranquillised fifties, as Robert Lowell called them. No small town America for her. She liked to occupy the margins – perhaps that is key to her extraordinary angle of vision. She lived in little dimity rooms in other people’s houses. Her frugality with food and film contrasts with the affluent splurge of the baby boomers. Only her lens and the memories of the children she nannied let us know she was fleetingly here.

In Highland Park, where she worked for our friends the Gensburgs, living in their house from 1956 until 1972, Vivian was one of the outsiders—housekeepers, maids, nannies who came into our tight, predominantly Jewish community and ensured it wasn’t hermetically sealed. These were women who brushed our hair, refereed our sibling fights, and supplemented our education, describing what it was like to be hungry enough to eat grass or desperate enough to lance a festering boil. Sometimes they stayed on for years and became part of the family and part of the neighbourhood. (Frances Brent, October 2012, The Tablet)

Nannying was the day job. In many of her photos children are at the edge of the field of vision, especially in the self-portraits. She had to sneak the shots while minding them. Anybody who has a creative streak, any teacher who spends long hours in the company of kids, knows what this feels like, knows it as a strategy of work.

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By most accounts Vivian Meier was a good nanny. She had a firm hand and could be by turns interesting, stimulating, eccentric. Returning to New York from France in 1951, she worked for a family in Southampton until 1956, when she moved to Chicago’s North Shore. There she stayed for many years, developing deep relationships with two families. She had the luxury of her own bathroom which doubled as darkroom. It was the children of these families who came to her aid towards the end of her life when her hoarding and other eccentricities became more pronounced.

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One blogger has described her work as “capturing life’s visual fireflies” and that seems to me exactly right. The 2013 BBC documentary The Vivian Maier Mystery has described her as a “poet of suburbia”. “The shadows of the America of her time fall across Vivian Maier’s photographs.” She was an audio, film and photographic record-keeper, a hoarder of ephemera. She was a one-woman national archive.

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One of her hundreds, perhaps thousands, of self-portraits, taken end of June 1971 in the Chicago area, shows a store window with Loony-Balloony gum and toy boxes. It’s the kind of decrepid toy store window with panel board backing we never remember. We remember brighter, more desired toys. These are poor kids’ toys. On a plane slightly ajar from the image we see a diagonal line of transparent plastic clothes pegs – pegs used for a display that isn’t there. And then, reflected in the glass, Meier herself, also not quite present, in shadowed outline, with her trademark Mary Poppins hat and coat. What is she saying about the toyshop? Is she merely clicking it? What do the faint traces of self in these self-portraits say about her life?

End of June 1971 - Chicago area, Vivian Maier

End of June 1971 – Chicago area, Vivian Maier

They seem to me to say something about the way single people live vicariously at the edge of other people’s families, observing the monopolising selfishness of the family unit, its need for help. Her focus is simultaneously that of a provider of comfort and care and an observer of the world’s cruelty.

In another photo, this time from July 1956 in the Chicago area, she photographs a shoe on its side on the path. Valley Shoes is inscribed across the insole, facing us forlornly. Where is its pair? It’s a fairly sensible woman’s shoe, rather like the shoes Vivian wore herself. Behind it, on the sidewalk of this clearly disreputable area, is the lower half of a child’s stroller, with two little sexless feet in their first shoes, waiting for the photographer to be finished and the stroll to continue. And in the foreground the shadow of the Maier hat: observer, shoe coming to grief, child strolling out. The picture is attempting to tell a story.

July 1956 - Chicago area, Vivian Maier

July 1956 – Chicago area, Vivian Maier

She knows nannying is both a responsible job and drudge work. Comments by her ex-employers in John Maloof’s and Charlie Siskel’s wonderful 2013 documentary Finding Vivian Maier sometimes acknowledge her ambiguous status. We have difficulty admitting we entrust our children to menials. The children Vivian Maier looked after are more clear-cut in their affections than their parents are. Some loved her, as she must have loved them. “She was like a second mother to us,” one family said. Some have grudges to bear – she did this, she did that – in the new misery memoir mode. But most recall Vivian Maier affectionately while acknowledging her oddness, particularly in later life. She grew into her eccentricities.

Lane Gensburg, whose family hired Vivian Maier as their nanny when he was a boy, at the exhibition of her work in Chicago. DailyMail photo.

Lane Gensburg, whose family hired Vivian Maier as their nanny when he was a boy, at the exhibition of her work in Chicago. Daily Mail photo.

She knows in her blood the way the rich handle their servants and that you’ve got to keep employers in their place. Her photos constitute a record, an unblinkered social commentary – the view of a French immigrant looking down through society to its underclass, its white and black poor before the advent of Civil Rights. It’s a compassionate view at odds with current Tea Party nostrums. There’s a heart in the lens.

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In another stroller picture we see two seated toddlers reflected in the chrome backing of a car mirror, Chicago area again. It reprises an earlier April 24 1957 black and white shot. There are many of these hubcap, mirror, shopfront reflections. Nanny leans over the stroller to snap it. The car is clean and shiny, probably from black elbow grease, its aerodynamic streamlined form shaped like our view of the fifties. The Eisenhower years. The Country Club. The family motor as American dream. The circular mirror just off-centre. It reminds me of The Arnolfi Marriage by Jan Van Eyck, in which we see a tiny artist reflected in a wall mirror, toiling away at his commission for the bourgeoisie. Simultaneously a nuptial portrait and a portrait of the artist. Nanny and shutterbug.

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Enigmatic – that word often crops up to describe Vivian Maier. Is it selfishness that made her shoot and go? Or an ultimate eccentricity? Is she saying you’ll never see my stuff? Occasionally in the Maloof and Siskel documentary those who knew her lament that she didn’t claim the limelight, didn’t make more of herself, sell herself better. Her seeking the shade is almost an affront to self-determination, to the dream of success. It both confounds and confirms the dream of making it as immigrant and artist.

August 1975

In the nineteen-seventies she began more and more to shoot in colour. In the above yellow composition, taken in 1975, she has spotted the infantilism of adults, the dream of wearing shorts forever. It has a surreal naiveté. A number of the adults in John Maloof’s and Charlie Siskel’s documentary have the same overly preened and manicured look, like pieces of topiary. I remember in the sixties and seventies when Americans came home to the old country they always looked brighter, imbued with hope, kitted out in cotton and seersucker, putting a brave face on the facts of decline and death.

It is an accident of art – found art – that by the merest whisker her work has been saved. She never touted it round the galleries. John Maloof discovered it by fluke, in a trunk for auction. In our jaded photo culture, our culture of snap and go, he has rescued it and given us its full glory. All laureates go to him for championing her. Those many thousands of negatives, her record of a life, of the post-war dispensation, could so easily have been consigned to the flames. Between art and the dumpster. This near-miss is a miracle caught in the nick of time.

You can see more Vivian Maier photos here at Artsy.net.

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