The Vivian Maier story has struck me as the story of a true artist. Here is a woman who would be utterly unknown had not a young man bought a case full of negatives at an auction and taken the time to look at them. What he found was one of the most amazing collections of street photography ever put together. The jaw dropping photographs are worthy of hours of your time, but it is the nature of the artist that intrigues me most.
I am a writer. In the not too distant past the author’s life was completely controlled by publishing houses. If you couldn’t get one of them to back your book you were destined for a life of artistic frustration. Without a publisher you never had a chance of gaining an audience and being appreciated. When a writer wrote his novel he knew that he had as much chance of getting published as the old man with the cigarette in his mouth at the quarter slot machine has of winning the $100,000 jackpot. And yet just as the old man puts his next quarter in the slot the writer sits down and writes his novel. Although the old man and the author have “hope” in common the author has one more thing driving him—passion for his art.
Stories abound that show the strength of this passion. Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes is one example. He was writing advertising prints in a basement office for a tyrant of a boss while he was looking for a publisher for his comic strip. At one point he had a tantalizing nibble. It came to nothing in the end. Then one day he got a call and was flown to New York to meet with a potential publisher. The two men were very interested in his strip. They told Watterson that they would syndicate his strip if he would simply add a character according to their description. The sole purpose of this character was to sell merchandise. Right before Watterson sat the ticket out of the hellhole of a job; a way out of obscurity. He turned them down and flew back to his basement job not knowing if he would ever see another chance at syndication. Why did he do this? He was an artist, not a salesman. He couldn’t write what was in someone else’s heart, only what was in his own.
Bill Watterson experienced grand success in spite of his artistic standards. I am very grateful for this. His art has enriched my life. As much as I admire Bill Watterson, Vivian Maier appears to me to be even a step higher on the ladder of pure artist. Although Watterson would not create anything less than his heart he felt a need to seek an audience. This is where Vivian separates herself from most artists.
Vivian Maier, who created some of the most beautiful, inspiring, artistic street photography ever seen, never sought an audience. To most of us this is incomprehensible. It is wrong, even. Why would she keep these beautiful these photographs—these works of art—from the world? No one really knows. She died before the discovery of her talent and left no record of what drove her other than the photographs themselves. I can only conjecture that Vivian Maier created art because she could. There was no “Art for fame,” “Art for money,” or “Art for personal validation” driving her artistic vision. The moments she captured on the street were not beautiful until she released the shutter. The beauty now captured, she stored the negative away. Her job was done. As far as she knew, the beauty would never be seen again. The fact that it was created was enough.
I write because of what I have read. Authors moved me so deeply that I found myself with an insatiable hunger to do to others what these authors did to me. I want to create things that change people’s lives. But here I already diverge from Vivian Maier. Instead I am following the Bill Watterson—I am seeking an audience. It isn’t enough for me to just create the beauty; I desperately want someone to experience with me the beauty I create. Even if I’m not as pure an artist as Vivian Maier, I know that I can only create according to my heart like Watterson. On my Twitter feed thousands of tweets flow by every day by authors who are clearly following the current writing trends and screaming for me to read their books. I know some of these authors are finding considerable success. It’s true; I envy them their audience. Still, I will continue to write the books that fascinate me even if that lessens the likelihood of higher (or any) book sales. Don’t get me wrong. I take no pride in selling few books, but I take great joy in the books that I write. Maybe there I am touching upon something that Vivian Maier understood.