I first stumbled across Vivian Maier’s black and white street scenes at Mass MoCA over the summer and had the opportunity to re-visit her work in several New York City exhibitions. By now, everyone is familiar with the story behind this work. Maier worked as a nanny and had a passion for photography. Her time off was primarily spent photographing people on the streets of Chicago. She died in 2009, leaving a storage locker full of tens of thousands of negatives and thousands of exposed but undeveloped rolls of film. At an estate sale, a Chicago real estate agent and amateur historian named John Maloof purchased the contents of the locker for $400. Realizing the significance of Maier’s work, Maloof began to scan and print the negatives, eventually exhibiting the work. The degree to which Maier’s work has found rapid popularity and wide exposure is phenomenal. It is easy to see why: the work itself is excellent, her story and the story of her discovery are compelling, and her work coheres stylistically and in content with what many of the top photographers of her generation were doing.
As interesting as the images are -- and her work has been compared to that of Harry Callahan, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Helen Levitt among others – equally fascinating is how little is known about Maier’s life and her motivation for taking these pictures. She printed very few of the negatives. There is no record that she ever showed the images to anyone. When she shot, she typically took only one frame per subject. And then there are the thousands of undeveloped rolls. Roberta Smith, in a NY Times review, interprets these last two points as a sign of confidence in her ability to get the shot. I’m not convinced of that. That could also be explained by simple economy or an urge to accumulate. Maier was a hoarder, compulsively collecting and organizing newspapers and items she picked up off the street. Pictures of the interior of her apartment show all the rooms – including the bathroom -- filled with boxes stacked from floor to ceiling. It seems the way she approached the material aspects of her photography parallels whatever impulse motivated the hoarding.
At its most fundamental, photography is about sharing, an extension of pointing and saying “look at this” or “remember this.” Why didn’t Maier share? Did she ever intend to show the work? Or was this project obsessively personal? Was she collecting moments, faces, and places? Or was the act of taking the pictures a means of connection, of expressing empathy for the people she photographed? Of course, it can be both a bringing in and a reaching out. As I wonder about Maier’s motivations, another set of questions emerges: how is it that her photographs are so good? Was she familiar with the work of the photographers to which she is now compared? Maier is obviously gifted, but usually this level of visual sophistication is preceded by years of practice and training. Is there evidence of her process of growth? We’ll probably never know, unless a diary turns up.
And is this just the tip of the iceberg? The bulk of her work remains in its negative state, so we may be treated to more and more as the film gets processed, scanned and printed. To my knowledge, this situation in its scale is unique: an unknown photographer’s entire body of work is posthumously presented and marketed, without any precedence for how the images should be printed, or any sense of how the photographer might have edited the work. It seems like John Maloof, who controls the majority of Maier’s images, is treating her work with the appropriate care. Certainly, he has done a great service in bringing this marvelous work to light.
This review has been adapted from my blog post on Vivian Maier, which can be read in its entirety here.