Be–and yet know the great void where all things begin,
the infinite source of your own most intense vibration,
so that, this once, you may give it your perfect assent.
To all that is used-up, and to all the muffled and dumb
creatures in the world’s full reserve, the unsayable sums,
joyfully add yourself, and cancel the count.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, “Sonnets to Orpheus”, II:13, translated by Stephen Mitchell
In the 50s, 60s and 70s there was a woman who wore men’s shoes, liked foreign films and worked as a nanny for prosperous families. She trolled cities – Chicago and New York, especially – with her Rolleiflex making amazing images. She could see the details that most of us are too busy or too blind to notice. Lines. Reflections. Juxtapositions.
But every photo she took, what her eyes saw and her hands helped to capture over several creatively rich decades, was meant to be lost. Or at least was not kept in a way that ensured it would be found. With no close relatives, Vivian Maier kept her belongings, including thousands of photo negatives, in a storage locker in Chicago. When she stopped paying the rent, the items went up for auction on eBay and a real estate agent and writer, John Maloof, who was working on a book about Chicago’s northside – where Maier had lived – bought the contents and recognized the worth of the photos. Today, he is working on a book and a film about Maier.
From an exhibit of Maier’s work that is now at the Chicago Cultural Center, I went across that wonderful boulevard, Michigan Avenue, to the Art Institute where there’s currently a show of the work of photographers Walker Evans, Bernice Abbott, and Margaret Bourke-White. Though the order in which I saw these exhibits was accidental, it was also informative; on nearly side-by-side viewing, Maier’s work stood up to these greats, particularly Evans who is one of the best known street photographers. What if Evan’s work had been placed in a storage locker and lost? There are are so many artists – photographers, yes, but also of filmmakers, graphic designers, set designers – whose work is derivative of his. That line from one artist to the next – how easily it can be lost.
I wonder at these sparks that we each possess to create, to see the world in our own particular way. What happens to these sparks when we die? Arguably, they extend beyond into our children, our friends. But there are tendrils that go out into the world unbeknownst to us. I think of Dan Eldon’s journals, with which I’ve spent so much time. If he hadn’t died, Dan’s journals likely never would have been seen. Would he mind that they’ve been published, shared with hundreds of thousands? I’ve found clues that suggest not, but in truth, I don’t know. I can’t. Just as John Maloof will never know how Vivian Maier would feel about his publication of her work.
In graduate school, I did a very old-school, biographical study of the writer Josephine Herbst. Her best known work today are journalistic pieces she wrote from Spain and Germany on the cusp of World War II. But in the 30s, she also produced a trilogy of novels very much in the vain of Dos Passos, a family drama in which working class people are cast from one hardship to the next and no one ever has enough “capital” to realize a dream. Just another dime, another few dollars is the refrain.
When I visited Yale’s Beinecke Library to look through Herb’s papers, I found letters from other writers. They vibrated with life, much like Eldon’s journals; they held creative kernels that spoke of frustrations about not writing, excitement for projects just commenced. Falling from their pages were germs of ideas, echos of everyday life. A newspaper article about labor activists fell from a sad missive on yellowed hotel stationery in Delmore Schwartz’s hand. A recipe for sticky buns on a notecard was produced between the folds of a letter from Katherine Anne Porter.
I was reminded of these when I came across the web site Forgotten Bookmarks, which memorializes odds and ends stuck into books by people far more anonymous that mid-century great writers, people perhaps more like Vivian Maier, people who loved Squash Pickles.
In this age of digitization, will we have the pleasure of finding “lost” recipes, photo negatives, and love letters? What will happen to blogs let go for decades after the blogger has passed? Will they float in the ether to be found by improbable inheritors? And what of our creative selves – the lives we live in snippets between making money and raising children and folding laundry. How will those vibrations we create and which hold the possibility to feed and inspire others live o n? We’ll continue vibrate, just as people have since we started writing and drawing, but what will become of our vibrations, echoing through a new kind of space?