By Jeremy Biles
Chicagoans are loving Vivian Maier’s photographs. On my multiple passes through the Cultural Center’s “Finding Vivian Maier” exhibition, the rooms were crowded and the excitement palpable.
Much of the considerable buzz around the photographs has to do with their intriguing backstory. Maier grew up in Europe and New York City, but worked as a nanny in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs for about forty years, before passing away in 2009. She appears to have taken photographs almost constantly on her walks through Chicago’s streets and on her trips to New York City and around the world—yet she never showed the pictures to anyone.
In 2007, a trove of Maier’s negatives was obtained by a young Chicago real-estate agent named John Maloof when he purchased the contents of a storage locker at auction. He now has in his possession a total of 100,000 negatives, and maintains a blog (vivianmaier.blogspot.com) where you can read the story of the discovery and view a selection of photographs. Thanks to Maloof and to the organizers of Vivian Maier Photography (vivianmaierphotography.com), who hold another 12,000 negatives, these images are now internationally recognized, earning comparisons with the work of great modernists like Paul Strand, and legendary street photographers Brassai, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Harry Callahan.
As we try to characterize this still-emerging body of work (Maloof is about a third of the way through the task of scanning the negatives), it’s natural to resort to comparisons. But Maier’s photographs are distinctive, and the fascination they inspire will outlast the thrill of their unlikely discovery. Though there is still much to learn about Maier and her practice, we can look at the photographs on their own terms and venture a few observations that might start getting us beyond the buzz.
Maier’s work presents much to be appreciated at the formal level. The scattered contents of a bag of French fries dropped on the sidewalk are the unlikely basis of one impeccably balanced composition. In another, patterns of scrappy netting are elements in an image that verges on abstraction. Sometimes perspective plays off urban geometries. One photograph, for instance, presents four women standing side by side; individually, their upright bodies correspond to vertical grooves in the concrete wall behind them, while as a group they are hemmed in by horizontal grooves aiming toward a vanishing point beyond the frame. An angular shadow crosscuts these lines, lending the image its tension. Here as elsewhere, Maier displays a talent for dramatic but nimble chiaroscuro. She also makes canny use of the sky, allowing the negative spaces between silhouetted buildings to emerge as shapes of their own.
Such images find at once a counterpoint and complement in Maier’s extraordinary portraits. Her fondness for patterns carries over into an affectionate attention to the fabrics and fashions that clothe her subjects—but what’s really captivating are the bumps, creases and wrinkles that texture their faces. Whether candid (as most are) or posed, these portraits demonstrate a kind of charity in Maier’s approach to her subjects, who range from the elevated (Salvador Dalí was among the affluent celebrities she photographed) to the abject: the ostensibly homeless and poor, whom she photographed with neither condescension nor fetishistic theatricality.
Timing and framing are key to those photographs that capture vernacular moments, the slice-of-life pictures documenting the specific poetries of the street, the fascinating incongruities and fortuitous harmonies of everyday life: a man grabbing a nap in his car; a dead pigeon belly-up in a trash can; kids at play; adults at work; cops calming or cuffing citizens. In one complex tableau, the backdrop is an apartment building’s facade, with one street-level window occupied by a pair of kids, and another by a woman talking to a couple on the sidewalk. A man, hands on hips, stands in front of a child and a tricycle as two well-dressed women, both toting bags, approach on foot. Nearby, a boy rolls a tire that frames the legs of a little girl sitting against the building: a feat of timing, and probably patience.
Maier’s photographs are complex but not tricky, witty but not whimsical, clever but not cloying, affectionate but not sentimental. That Maier never showed her photographs to anyone suggests that for her, photography was as much about practice as product. If so, then the photographs themselves attest to an impulse at once generous and self-effacing: a will simply to see, to engage the everyday world with a sympathetic eye. Might it be that enthusiasm for Maier’s photographs stems from this sense that they are a work of generosity, and that only such generosity could yield up images that, for all the comparisons, are incomparable? Perhaps enthusiasts love Maier’s photographs because from behind the aura of mystery surrounding their maker, they reveal something plainly magnanimous.
Through April 3 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Washington.