2008: a woman walks the streets of Chicago. She might be anyone. Someone you or I would walk past and not pay the slightest attention to: plainly dressed; elderly. She slips on a patch of ice, falls and hits her head. Expected to make a full recovery, her condition deteriorates and she dies in April 2009.
One year earlier, with unpaid rent on the storage lockers in which this nameless, faceless woman stored her suitcases and cardboard boxes, her possessions had been sold off by blind auction. The value of the contents of those suitcases, those hundreds of boxes, went unrealised for some time. Papers were disposed of, assumed to be rubbish. It is only gradually that they revealed themselves. To the street vendors who appreciated vintage photography. To a man who took the time to develop the negatives and sell the prints on e-Bay. To another who set up a blog to display some of her remarkable images.
It was only because of her obsessive habit of cataloguing of her life that the photographer could be identified as that same elderly woman who hit her head. But, by then, Vivian Maier was dead. In death she has become something of a cult figure; a pioneer of street photography; an odd-ball who guarded her privacy so fiercely that she invented an alternative history for herself.
I chose photography- a medium that has fascinated me from an early age – as the theme for my novel, I Stopped Time. The thing that strikes me so starkly about the discovery of Vivian Maier’s extraordinary collection – the result of her life-long passion – is that there could easily be many others like hers. Gathering dust in attics. In garages. In boxes.
Vivian Maier’s is not the first personal collection of photography to go on display to the public and receive critical acclaim. Henri Lartique was, in his own way, equally obsessive, but his wealthy background meant that his subjects differed substantially. Not the outcasts, the dispossessed and tortured souls Vivian captured on film, but inventors – ‘those magnificent men in their flying machines’ – rich eccentrics, beautiful Parisians, world-class tennis players, fabulous actresses. Aside from obsession and a desire to perfect their crafts, what these two bodies of work have in common – and what they also share with the work of my novel’s main character, model turned photographer Lottie Pye – is that they capture a moment in time; a moment that would otherwise be lost to us forever. I suppose that might be said of any photograph, but these individuals had an eye for what would set one decade apart from another and for searching out faces which perfectly defined the here and now.
In I Stopped Time an elderly man, Sir James Hastings, inherits the body of work of the mother who abandoned him when he was only a baby. Without an adequate explanation for her actions, he had written her off, labelling her as the villain of his childhood. Now, looking at the world through her eyes for the first time, he must discover her through the images she chose to record. And what he finds there can’t be ignored.
You can join him on his journey.