The Woman Behind the Lens

courtesy of Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows/Jeffrey Goldstein Collection

courtesy of “Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows”/Jeffrey Goldstein Collection

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Photographs tell two stories. One of these stories occurs in front of the camera, and this story is supposedly objective. But this is a filtered reality, one selected by the person on the other end of the lens. This other story, the one that exists behind the camera, is told through the photographer’s artistic decisions. A photograph is an autobiography.

In 2007, a twenty-six-year-old realtor named John Maloof went to an auction at RPN Sales in Chicago. For a few hundred dollars, he purchased a set of trunks containing thousands of negatives and rolls of film, hoping to find some photographs for the book he was writing about his Portage Park Neighborhood. While he didn’t find what he was looking for, he did discover Vivian Maier.

Maier is the mysterious camera-wielding nanny who, for over forty years, took more than 100,000 photographs of Chicago’s streets. Before Maloof’s unwitting discovery, no one had ever seen Maier’s work. He posted them on a Flickr forum and asked experienced photographers what to do with them. Her striking photographs of Chicago’s streets have since received world-wide acclaim. Her work has been exhibited across the United States, as well as in London, Germany, Denmark, and Norway. Though little is known about her personal life, Maloof and others have been working to piece together the story of this secretive artist.

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It’s important to think of Maier first as an artist, and of her work as art. Her photographs are inventive and interesting. She was constantly moving around, shooting people’s legs, shoes, heads, and backs. She had an eye for composition, and she often shot from odd angles, creating uncanny images. In two photographs of sleeping men, for example, Maier angled the camera so that each man’s head is cropped from view.

To label Maier a street photographer oversimplifies her massively varied body of work. Whereas the objective of street photography is to capture the candid moment, her subject matter is carefully selected–a boy’s knobby knees, a women’s skirt flapping in the wind, the creases in a man’s pant leg. She didn’t use a zoom lens, so every close-up of someone’s back or knees means Maier was lurking two or three feet away. The muted creepiness of this is captured in the sneers and surprised looks of some her subjects’ faces.

Some of her photographs are aesthetic meditations–the shadowy lines of a fire escape cutting across a building, a stark line of telephone poles against a white sky. From her negatives, you can see that she would photograph the same subject several times, trying to find the right composition or lighting.
Her sensibility is hard to categorize. She took revealing and humanizing photographs of the working-class. But she also photographed bow-tied men and women in mink furs. Some of her photographs are moody and dark, but she also captured happy scenes of smiling children and days at the beach. Her aesthetic varies too, from tightly framed shots of faces and objects, to looming, architectural landscapes.

Perhaps the fact that Maier never exhibited her work contributed to her wide range of styles and subject matters. She never received critical feedback for it, either from the public or from individual acquaintances. She was never forced to curate her own work, so she didn’t have to consider cohesive themes. Maybe she only cared about the moment of the photograph, because she didn’t even develop all of her negatives: Maloof possessed some 2,000 undeveloped rolls of film.

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Last Thursday, Rich Cahan and Ron Gordon told the Vivian Maier story to a packed crowd at the Bridgeport Art Center. Cahan recently co-authored a book about Maier entitled “Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows,” and Gordon is a photographer and master printer who photographed Chicago’s streets around the same time as Maier. As they displayed some of her photographs in a slideshow, they crafted a narrative for her life’s work. The audience was clearly familiar with her story and eagerly asked the pair questions throughout the talk.

As narratives go, Maier’s is pretty sparse. We know that she was born in France, and lived in New York. We know that she came to Chicago in 1956, but we don’t know why. She spent most her life in Chicago until her death in 2009. During that time, she bounced from house to house, working as a nanny. When a relative left her half of an estate in France, she sold it and used the money to travel the world and photograph what she saw.

Maier frequented art museums and galleries and was an avid filmgoer. Her strong interest in art suggests aesthetic aspirations. But she was also an obsessive collector, compelled to document her life. She always requested a lock on her bedroom door, and on the rare occasion that the family was given a glimpse of her room, they found stacks and stacks of newspapers covering every surface.

Maier’s self-portraits shed light on her other work. They’re a little odd–she always shot these photographs in mirrors and reflective windows, and her likeness is usually obscured in some manner. She also frequently photographed her shadow, which appears on sidewalks and on buildings. Sometimes, a portion of her shadow appears in photograph of other people. Her presence is ghostly; her life voyeuristic.

We are the voyeurs twice removed. Since the discovery of her work in 2007, people have been reconstructing the life and personality of an obsessively private woman by looking at what she looked at. The fact that we think we can do that speaks to a special quality of photography. Because every photograph is tied to a specific time and space, we tend to believe that photography can honestly represent reality. Each photograph represents a fraction of a second of Maier’s life.

From our determination to know more about this mysterious artist, we learn something about photography. It is at once art and documentary; it reveals a conversation between a subject and its object. For one self-portrait, Maier situated herself in between two facing mirrors, with her camera on a tripod. The result is surreal, with her image repeating into infinity. By looking at what she looked at, we gaze at her.

1 comment for “The Woman Behind the Lens

  1. June 6, 2013 at 9:02 am

    Thanks Sasha for your fine account. Co-authors Michael Williams and Richard Cahan will be signing and selling Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows at a great price at the CityFiles Press table at the Printers Row List Fest on Saturday and Sunday. We will be in tent FF on Polk Street just west of Dearborn.

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