How to talk about art lightly but with rigor and depth: Vivian Maier according to Roberto Carlone. The interview

'The Eyes of Vivian Maier,' by and with Roberto Carlone, is a show that combines art, photography, music and theater to tell the story of Vivian Maier in a light but profound way. We talked about it with the creator.

Is it possible to tell about art in a light-hearted way, but without losing sight of rigor and depth, without neglecting serious research work? Theanswer is affirmative, and an excellent example of this is the play Gli occhi di Vivian Maier (I’m a camera), entirely dedicated to the famous photographer Vivian Maier (New York, 1926 - Chicago, 2009), written and performed by Roberto Carlone (Vercelli, 1955), an actor and musician (together with his brother Gianluigi, Giancarlo Macrì and Mario Sgotto, he founded the Banda Osiris in 1980). The show, which premiered in 2016, tells in an unusual and original way the whole story of Vivian Maier, through a tale about the life of the American photographer, her rediscovery, and photography in general. Four characters (a photographer, the newsagent who is the protagonist of a Vivian Maier photo, the discoverer of her photographs, and Vivian Maier’s shadow) are the protagonists of a show that combines storytelling, photography, videomapping, and music in an extraordinary fusion that has a great effect on the audience. At the end of July the show was performed in Castelnuovo Magra, and we took the opportunity to talk with Roberto Carlone both about The Eyes of Vivian Maier (I’m a camera) and about ways to present art to the public in an engaging yet thoughtful way. The interview is edited by Federico Giannini. Instead, synopses and clips from the show can be found at this link.

Roberto Carlone
Roberto Carlone

La locandina de Gli Occhi di Vivian Maier
The playbill for The Eyes of Vivian Maier

Un momento dello spettacolo
A moment of the show

Vivian Maier, Autoritratto (s.d.; 40 x 50 cm; © Vivian Maier / John Maloof Collection, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY)
Vivian Maier, Self-Portrait (s.d.; 40 x 50 cm; © Vivian Maier / John Maloof Collection, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY)

FG. What is the idea behind the show The Eyes of Vivian Maier?
RC. The idea, born out of my passion for Vivian Maier, was that I wanted to do something different, not to do a lecture, but to create a kind of story with characters, which would also allow me to vary the register and create a show for everyone, more “palatable” than a monologue or a lecture.

I guess it was not an easy undertaking....
I have had some... negative marks from Vivian Maier. I got the first one when I went to see her exhibition in Milan. I had gone to my brother, who lived in Milan, and I didn’t know that they had extended the exhibition: he warned me, suggesting that I go to see it before it closed. So we went to see the exhibition, but we went on the very last day, when by then it was being dismantled ... therefore we saw yes the exhibition ... but inside the crates as they were taking it away! This was, in short, the first sign, I almost interpreted it as a kind of warning from Vivian Maier not to deal with her! But I went ahead anyway, and started writing the first texts for the show. Then I decided I wanted to research it further. I was on tour, we were very close to the border with France, and we had a free week. So we decided to go and visit Saint-Julien-en-Champsaur to breathe the atmosphere, the air, to see the place where Vivian spent a lot of time, the place of origin of her maternal family, in the French Alps. It was the first of May, I remember we had tried to cross Montgenevre in the snow. And we got stuck-I interpreted that as a negative sign as well. However, while waiting for the snowplows, I started surfing the web and discovered the website of the local village association, a kind of Pro Loco. There was a form inviting visitors to the site to make contact if they wanted to travel to Saint-Julien. I tried, with no particular expectations because I didn’t think they would contact me back, and instead they, even within twenty minutes, responded: they then paired us with two local people who, after we arrived, took us around and gave us a tour of the village. When they realized what my intentions were, which was that I intended to document Vivian Maier, they they put me through a kind of two-hour interrogation! They wanted to know if I was prepared, because they told us that many people come to Champsaur with the idea of writing books about Vivian Maier or making films about her, but they often find out that these are people who are ill-prepared about Vivian Maier, and they feel like they are being made fun of. So they asked me very specific questions, not only about Vivian Maier’s life, but also about photography in general, about technique, about history. During my stay I had the opportunity to meet several people who knew Vivian Maier, I collected testimonies, every night I came back with many notes to sort through, and that helped me a lot to have a different view on her. On the day we were supposed to leave, Jeffrey Goldstein, the second largest collector of Vivian Maier photographs, had arrived in the country. I therefore decided to extend my stay to meet him, and thanks to him I was able to delve into the more human aspect of Vivian.

What is the aspect of this research that somehow struck you the most?
The fact that Vivian took about 150,000 photographs, and we only know a small part of them. This is a very important aspect because it triggered a kind of mechanism that led us to want to learn more and more about her: and the further we go into the research, the more we learn that she was a person rich in inventiveness and ideas, curious, always eager to record everything she saw.

So there is a lot of unpublished material to be discovered.
Yes, there is a lot of unpublished material, and often deliberately unpublished as well.

In what sense?
In the sense that some things are often a bit hidden, perhaps to make Vivian Maier a kind of phenomenon, a bit too studied. It is true that arranging the photographs required work of enormous proportions, but it is also true that there have been several attempts to turn Vivian Maier into a business.

Here, for The Eyes of Vivian Maier really cannot be called a business, quite the contrary. I find that this show is a way of doing a certain kind of outreach, which could be extended to other fields than photography.
The work we did for this show is the same work we do with the Osiris Band, which is always to try to make something that is very complicated become simpler. We like to combine the lighter and maybe even sillier aspect with the more important one. But this always presupposes a lot of research work: it is necessary to document, collect material and then ... sugarcoat it. But always with serious research work behind it.

Are there keys to getting a certain message across to a wide audience, who might not otherwise have access to certain content or might not be interested? Bearing in mind that in Italy there is still a strong demand for culture (and this is shown by the numbers of the most visited exhibitions), but the problem in my opinion lies in trying not to trivialize the content, not to let culture expire by making it become a consumer product.
In our case we are facilitated by the fact that Vivian Maier is a character that attracts so many, especially younger people. Perhaps because she was a woman who had a life full of difficulties, because she was discovered later, and because she still did very important work. That said, it is very difficult to meet the needs of an audience that demands culture. I am convinced that there are many levels of communication, and they must all be kept in mind. The more heterogeneous the audience, the more it is necessary to be fresh and essential, but without simplifying, addressing topics with preparation. In my opinion, it is necessary to focus on two aspects: the first is to intrigue the audience, and the second is to give serious information. A balance must be struck between these two aspects. It is not true that in order to reach everyone you have to lower the level, in the belief that the audience will go and inform themselves anyway. Because otherwise the problem is to remain superficial and to convey superficiality, in the sense that the audience will then grasp only the superficial aspects of an artist’s work, without delving deeper. Instead, in my opinion, it is necessary, yes, to stay a little bit on the surface, but then you have to go down: kind of like the diver’s work. To put side by side, as mentioned, the lighter aspect with the more serious and deeper aspect. It’s not easy, of course. It is a work on the content, on the language, on the audience, on what the audience feels and on what we ourselves who compose the texts feel in front of an artist’s work. If there is something that moves me, I also put on stage what has touched me. This is also a way to reach out in a more direct way and to establish a dialogue with the audience that can also be more empathetic and less formal.

One passage in the play that particularly stuck with me is the newsagent expressing his disdain for what he calls the “pornography of images.” Is there a polemic against the way we use images today?
The idea of being a little more conscious about the use we make of pictures. It’s nice and it’s easy to take pictures, and we welcome that with the technologies we have available to us today. However, we often take pictures without a bit of head. The controversy is this. I think we need to think more about photos. Our cell phones today take pictures at a resolution that was once characteristic of cameras that were considered professional. So by these means we have great possibilities. And we could revolutionize the world by these means. Sometimes it happens, but in the vast majority of cases the photographs we see are like background noise. I really regret this, because we have technology that would allow us to be really democratic and make the news run, but it is often not exploited well.

And images have tremendous power. Last year we had Tano D’Amico here, and with him we were talking about how images taken as if they were documents may not necessarily be a good thing, because a document can be manipulated, consequently we need to look for good images, those that have a thought behind them, that represent the soul of the person who created them, to paraphrase an expression of Tano D’Amico himself... and maybe today we are missing this, we feel perhaps the lack of the idea of the image as a means to change the world...
I think the problem lies in the fact that there is a lack of image education today, in my opinion. And, again in my opinion, there is also a lack of analytical discourse on photographs, which would allow for the development of a deeper reflection also in what concerns the technical aspect of photography, something that is often very neglected today.

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