An amateur Chicago historian unearthed a photographic treasure trove when he bought a box at a storage facility auction in 2007. John Maloof’s discovery of 150,000-plus negatives, hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film and countless reels of documentary film propelled an all-but-forgotten woman into the pantheon of photography.
Vivian Maier, a reclusive Chicago nanny, left behind her life’s work in that storage container, which was auctioned off for nonpayment of rent. She died in a nursing home in early 2009 without ever sharing her life-long passion for photography. Now we must look to her work — what she chose to capture and how beautifully she recorded it — to understand the artist and her silence.
Lumiere Fine Art Photography Gallery affords that opportunity. Twelve 12-by-12-inch silver gelatin prints recently released from the John Maloof Collection hang in the gallery in “Vivian Maier: New Work.” Fifteen others are available for tabletop viewing. The exhibition, which will be on view through December 21, coincides with the publication of Vivian Maier Self-Portraits (powerHouse Books, 120 pages) and the New York film premiere of the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier.”
Maier’s photographs speak to the unknowable in all human beings. That she moved through the world with a camera hung around her neck almost every day of her adult life raises the question of how her photography could have been a secret. Most photographs released to date are that of a keen observer who moved anonymously among the people she photographed. Did no one notice or care to ask her what she was looking for? Did this incuriosity betoken the invisibility of a middle-aged, unmarried and dowdy woman? Did she think of herself as the shadow that was so often the photographic stand-in for her presence?
Though some of her subjects are aware of her presence and return her gaze with frank curiosity, most seem completely unaware of her scrutiny. It could be that her favored use of the Rolleiflex she held at her waist spared them her intense gaze. Rather than looking at her subjects, the woman actually observing them seemed to be focused downward on the viewfinder.
Riding in a horse-drawn carriage at Central Park, the beautiful young lovers in one untitled photograph are aware only of each other. We are transfixed by the light on the face of a woman whose delicate features and ivory skin are as lovely as a porcelain doll’s. The logo on the side of the carriage beneath the enchanted couple reads “Safety. Service. Comfort.” It is easy to imagine the photographer yearning for the same, but we do not have to guess: it is all in the photograph.
Maybe the potency of her own secret passion heightened her awareness of the private moments of others. A photo of an elderly couple asleep on a train exemplifies her capacity for stealth and the stolen moment. Maier captures a moment of quiet familiarity and comfort. We see the wedding ring on the man’s hand as he holds his wife against him as they sleep. The world outside the train window passes without their notice and is faint and insignificant compared to the solid permanence of their companionship.
The photograph seems to bear the longing of someone who watches to know what this companionship would feel like. Any sense of violation, however, feels like our own. We become the voyeur by scrutinizing an image that we can only assume Maier never intended to make public.
The gallery also shows a loop of raw footage selected from 8-millimeter film Maier recorded in the 1960s and early 1970s. Flickering images provide a silent and moving revue of one seemingly insignificant moment after another. Children picking strawberries after school. The ordinary excitement of a school fair and field day. Ticker-tape confetti showering the Apollo astronauts in a Chicago parade in 1971.
We become Vivian Maier through the film. We see what she saw. We feel her otherness. We connect kinetically to the movement of her hand as she directs the camera. We experience her shifting attention and the intensity of her gaze and the obliviousness of those who move past her without a glance. We understand just how much most of us miss in the daily moments of our own lives.
Photographer Dorothea Lange once described her process in a way that Vivian Maier would surely have understood: “You put your camera around your neck in the morning along with putting on your shoes, and there it is, an appendage of the body that shares your life with you.”
What fortune that Vivian Maier shared her life with a camera — and that all she saw and recorded has been given back to us.
Lumiere is also exhibiting works by renowned street photographers Pirkle Jones, Ruth-Marion Baruch and John Gutmann, who would no doubt have seen Maier as one of their own.
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