Vivian Maier?

- April 3, 2012

“ 'Unknown' photographer has become a worldwide phenomenon..."

The story of  “unknown” photographer Vivian Maier has become a worldwide phenomenon. 

The work of “amateur” street photographer Vivian Maier is best described on a website devoted to her work. The website uses the oft-quoted Churchill phrase: “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" to describe both the artist herself, the arc of her life and the discovery of her trove of images. That quote is the way that Churchill famously spoke of Russia and the vast land of Tsars and commissars that lay to the east, but it is easily adapted to an understanding of the life of photographer Vivian Maier. Before 2007 and the discovery of the contents of her storage lockers in Chicago, there is little evidence of her existence, save immigration records and the childhood memories of children, now grown, for whom she served as a nanny. The story of this nanny who has now wowed the world with her photography and who recorded some of the most interesting marvels and peculiarities of urban America in the second half of the 20th century is seemingly beyond belief.

Piecing together Maier Maier’s life is not easy. She was a person who fit the stereotypical European sensibilities of an independent liberated woman, accent and all, yet she was born in New York City. An American of French and Austro-Hungarian heritage, Maier bounced between Europe and the United States before coming back to New York City in 1951. Having picked up photography just two years earlier, she would comb New York’s five Burroughs as a street photographer, refining her artistic craft.

By 1956 Maier left the East Coast for Chicago, where she would spend most of the rest of her life working as a caregiver. On her weekends, she would shoot photos that she zealously hid from the eyes of others. Taking snapshots into the late 1990′s, Maier would leave behind a body of work comprising over 100,000 images. Additionally, Maier’s passion for documenting extended to a series of homemade documentary films and audio recordings. Interesting bits of Americana, the demolition of historic landmarks for new development, the unseen lives of people of various ethnicities and the destitute, Chicago’s most cherished sites – all were meticulously catalogued by Maier.

A sea of contradictions
For someone who was intensely guarded and private, Maier could be counted on to preach her own very liberal world view to anyone who cared to listen, or didn’t. Decidedly un-materialistic, she would come to amass a group of storage lockers stuffed to the brim with found items, art books, newspaper clippings, homemade films, as well as political tchotchkes and knick-knacks.

A free spirit but also a proud soul, Maier became poor and was ultimately saved by three of the children she had cared for as a nanny earlier in her life. Fondly remembering Maier as a second mother, they pooled together to pay for an apartment and took care for her for the remainder of her life. Unbeknownst to them, the contents of one of Maier’s storage lockers were auctioned off due to delinquent payments. In those storage lockers lay the massive hoard of negatives Maier secretly stashed throughout her lifetime – some film had never been processed.

Seeing but not seen, we have only Maier’s self-portraits to make sense of who this unique individual was. And even these are a bit of a subterfuge – portraits within portraits. I have seen several of them and they are of Maier photographing others as seen in store windows and most wonderfully of all, a view of Vivian Maier as seen in a mirror, as she photographs a workman carrying it.

The find of a lifetime
Being an Antiques Roadshow “junkie”, I am always thrilled when anyone (I would prefer it would be me) comes across a great find. In the case of Maier it was John Maloof.  Maier’s massive body of work from those storage lockers would come to light when, in 2007, her work was discovered by Maloof at a local thrift auction house on Chicago’s Northwest side. From there, it would eventually impact the world over and change the life of Maloof, who championed her work and brought it to the public eye.

Currently, Maier’s body of work is being archived and cataloged for the enjoyment of others and for future generations and John Maloof is at the core of this project. After piecing together most of the material, some of it having been previously dispersed to the various buyers attending that Chicago auction, Maloof has reconstructed roughly 90% of her archive.

Maloof has taken to the internet to discover who Maier was and try to piece together what little is known of her life. Maier’s life and her work are, and will continue to be, Maloof’s life work.

We have been privileged to have a small quantity of Maier’s work here in Santa Fe at the Monroe Gallery since February 3 and it will remain until April 22. Don’t miss this show, as there are very few places in the world where these images can be seen.