On Writing and…Profiting from Vivian Maier

 (The following is a revised version of a piece that first appeared on the blog site of the Assembly on Expanded Perspectives on Learning (AEPL).)

“They deserve a tremendous amount of credit for knowing the importance of what they had….”  (As quoted in The Chicago Tribune, September 8, 2014, of copyright attorney and photographer David Deal, on those who “found” Vivian Maier’s work.)

Questions: What do we do when we find or encounter private works of art—works that the artist never intended to publish?  Do we “use” them? Do we seek to gain from them?  What is our responsibility?  Our privilege?  Our right?

These questions emerged as I was planning and teaching a weekend writing workshop this past spring entitled Journal Writing for Self-Discovery.  The course was especially designed for our university’s DISCOVER Initiative, which offers undergraduate students campus-wide opportunities to explore “calling” and greater purpose and meaning—what to do and how to be—through academic advising, peer ministry, career services, and the curriculum. The outcomes for this particular DISCOVER Writing workshop focused on students learning how to use various contemplative and private journal writing strategies for self discovery, especially in terms of clarifying purpose and generating meaning.  Ultimately, I wanted students to experience how writers use private writing for life-long meaning-making, self-development, and creativity.

One question emerged from the workshop, and still lingers:  Should we make use of content that was never intended to be made public?  I realize that my raising the question in a public space perpetuates the potential breach.  I’m ambivalent about it all and welcome your own thinking here.

Finding Vivian Maier (which happens to be the actual name of a recently released documentary….)   Perhaps you know the story of Vivian Maier.  During the last half of the last century, Maier worked as a nanny on Chicago’s North Shore.  Shortly after her death in 2007, she became known to the world through the curating, exhibiting, and selling of many of her belongings found in a storage locker: more than 100,000 riveting and arguably truly artistic photographs capturing ordinary people on the streets of New York and Chicago.  Here’s an introduction to the mystery of both her and her “hobby”: http://video.wttw.com/video/1706831766/

Her story and photographs captivate.

text box - Maier

The night before the writing workshop, I posted the link to Maier’s story to the online course management system, not yet certain how or even if I would “use” it.  Maier—her story— raises all kinds of resonant questions given the workshop’s focus on the making of meaning and living purposefully:  What does it mean to live a creative life?  Do creative works require a public audience (as creativity scholar Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi contends)?  Did Maier live what Parker Palmer calls a “divided” life, not fully integrated?  Was this by choice or circumstance or both or more?


Contextualizing her work and life based on these questions of purpose and meaning and an integrated life, I showed the students the account of her story.  Thoughtful responses and additional questions emerged, and other “useful” things began to happen.  Here are a few:

  1. On whether others should profit from her work (which indeed has been very profitable, with national and international exhibitions, documentaries, and print sales—a potentially multi-million dollar industry): The consensus from the students was a resounding no. Only one student—a business major—disagreed:  “Why not?”
  2. On whether or not her story and her work should have been made public in the first place: This was more contentious—we talked about Anne Frank’s diary and the tensions and gifts of that unintended publication. And then one student persuasively offered:  Maier’s creative practice and locked-up photographs were analogous to, at least in part, the contemplative journal writing we were developing, and keeping private.  Privacy is key for this kind of contemplative writing to “work.”  And by all accounts, Maier was a deeply private person intent on keeping her photographs private as well.  What right do we have in sharing information and artifacts of her private life and work?
  3. On inspiration: After hearing her story and seeing her work, students were moved, fascinated, and inspired, just as I was, just as so many are. That weekend, her story offered a clarifying lens through which to glimpse, understand, and discuss what it can mean to live and be and work as creative, generative, meaning-making people, and importantly, the extent to which one can or should seek to live “an undivided life” in which private and public selves merge. These are urgent and ongoing challenges for both young and old, and the story of Vivian Maier uniquely captures and reflects the choices, risks, and implications.
  4. On learning: Some students reportedly experienced what in education circles is called “high impact”; their understanding, creative practices, art, or research were directly influenced by Maier’s story and work. For example, one student who was also simultaneously enrolled in an advanced Theories of Composing course, chose for her final project in that course to create a writing experiment for herself, comparing the processes and effects of privately writing with and without a prior mindfulness, or contemplative, practice.  One such practice is to concentrate on an image.  She chose one of Maier’s photographs, a close-up of an “old” woman, i.e., an elderly woman, somberly staring into the camera, gray hair, sagging skin, deep wrinkles—beautiful.  Upon meditating on this image, the student wrote a lovely, even literary, homage to both the woman in the photo and her own projected older self—and learned something about her present self in the process.

So my students and I did, in fact, profit from the story and work and life of Vivian Maier. I’m still ambivalent about it all.  Is there a difference between my sharing and profiting from Maier’s story and work, and John Maloof’s sharing and profiting—Maloof being the person who “found” Vivian Maier when he incidentally purchased a box of photos and negatives from a neglected storage locker, and who now curates, exhibits, and sells prints of the vast contents of that storage locker?  Apparently, others are ambivalent too, for Maloof and additional “owners” of Maier’s works are currently involved in litigation that seeks to resolve who has the right to profit from her work.



Legal questions aside, I interrogate my own responsibility and complicity:  Should I shine a light on a life that actively sought privacy for herself and her creativity?  Do I really want to participate in the violation of her privacy?  What rights do I or we have to violate that privacy?  And if not a matter of rights—for copyright law affords those rights—what responsibilities do we have—to the dead, the living, art, and wisdom?

Hidden Complexities

I agree with Composition scholar and teacher Peter Elbow who notes in Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, that we don’t yet know how to understand the private diarist or the history of the private diary; similarly, we, or I, don’t yet have a nuanced-enough understanding of our responsibility for found works of private artistic expression.

Perhaps “life is for the living”—and we make sense of what’s here, now, despite the way it’s uncovered or revealed.  Or perhaps we make good use of the wisdom that comes from posing and responding to questions about issues of ends and means.

Like Maloof, we teachers and writers are collectors and curators, exhibitors and sellers.  Every encounter, every observation, every connection, is potential use for our work.  I wonder if I should have collected and curated and used something else to help construct the wisdom I was going for.  Ambiguities…contradictions.  What’s your sense?  Your experience?  I’d like to learn from how you make these kinds of decisions.

Sheila M. Kennedy, Ph.D., Associate Professor of English, Director of First-Year Writing, Lewis University   kennedsh@lewisu.edu.


About Writing Faculty

This blog forum features writing about writing, from the faculty members of Lewis University’s First-Year Writing Program, who are challenged and delighted to teach students how to understand and meet the complexities of college and beyond through writing. For more information about “On Writing and…” contact Dr. Sheila M. Kennedy, kennedsh@lewisu.edu. Dr. Kennedy teaches Writing at Lewis University and directs its First-Year Writing Program. Her areas of expertise and interest include journal writing, healing and spiritual dimensions of writing, teaching writing, and creative nonfiction.

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