By now much of the world knows the Vivian Maier Story—single nanny carries a camera everywhere with her, shooting all manner of everyday things, but never develops prints from much of the film. After her death, a couple of guys find the undeveloped, unprinted film and negatives, genius is discovered, and her name becomes a household word across the world, her work eventually shown in more than a dozen countries. A mystery unraveled, the story itself appeals as much as Maier’s closeted gift for seeing and capturing the magic in everyday life.
Entering the exhibition, one is immediately struck by how polished the installation is. Beautifully printed, professionally framed color images line the walls, divided into sections with titles beginning with the word “looking.” We have “Looking Up,” “Looking Up Close,” “Looking Straight On,” “Looking from Behind,” “Looking Down,” “Looking Through” and “Looking from Afar.” Each photo has been assigned one of the categories, complete with text that explains why. It’s a good way of defining the work, particularly for people who are not familiar with either Vivian Maier or the medium of photography. Each of the categories has didactic material in both English and Spanish, fully explaining the images.
Accustomed to seeing Maier’s work in black-and-white, which shows her eye to spectacular effect, the color is a bit disconcerting to the aficionado—still, there are some absolute gems among this work. A particularly striking image is titled “Women on State Street in the Loop (1967).” Reminiscent of Barbara Crane’s “Loop Series,” this photograph shows a group of women going about their business—shopping, or on lunch break, hats and purses on heads and arms. The unique thing about this image is its depth of field. The focus is primarily on two women in the background, one of whom is eating an ice cream cone, and one who seems to be looking at Maier. The others are slightly out of focus, as if they’re rushing out of the frame.
Another powerful image that would not have read the same in black-and-white is titled “Portrait of a Woman in a Fur Coat” (1967). Her almost electric orange bobbed hair, Barbie pink blouse and fur collar are all about color—the background appears almost black-and-white in contrast. In the publicity image for the show, “Self Portrait reflected with Trees” (1973), Maier gives us one of her tricky double selfies—she appears as her reflection, and again, reduced in size, as a second reflection in a mirror through the window. In what may be the most stunning of her color images, “Self-portrait looking up into a mirrored ceiling at Navy Pier” (1960), Maier looks up standing next to a colorful automobile while three Black women chat beside her, oblivious. Maier had a knack for going unnoticed during her life, but that certainly changed after her death.
“Vivian Maier in Color” at Lubeznik Center for the Arts, 101 West Second Street, Michigan City, Indiana, on view through October 21.