PRINT Summer 2013


Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows

Vivian Maier, Untitled (New York), 1954, gelatin silver print. From Vivian Maier: Street Photographer (powerHouse Books, 2011). © Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection.

VIVIAN MAIER died on April 21, 2009, at eighty-three; she’d slipped and fallen on a patch of ice some months earlier and never quite recovered. She had spent much of her life as a governess with families in the Chicago suburbs, and one of those families arranged for her cremation and a brief obituary in the Chicago Tribune, which described her as “a free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all who knew her.” By all accounts, Maier was not very warm and friendly; she was strict with her charges and kept to herself. In fact, she touched few lives in her lifetime, even fewer magically, and she died with no idea that she’d be remembered and celebrated as one of the great street photographers of the last century.

Maier, born in New York to Austrian and French immigrants, had carried a camera since she was in her early twenties traveling through the French Alps, and continued to photograph regularly, obsessively, in whatever spare time she could manage during stints as a nanny in New York and Chicago. She had her own darkroom for a while, dropped film off at photo labs but printed only a fraction of the pictures on her contact sheets. She rarely showed work to employers (and seems to have had no friends to share it with) and never tried to publish or exhibit her photographs. Money was surely a factor; Maier made enough to buy film for her Rolleiflex but couldn’t always afford the processing, much less a finished print. But that didn’t discourage her and certainly didn’t slow her down. Apparently, taking the photographs was satisfying enough; we may never understand her ambitions for them. Although she worked primarily on the street and in public, Maier’s photography remained intensely private. Judging by the number of unprinted negatives she left behind, she denied the work even to herself.

Sometime after Maier lost her last job—and the room that came with it—she put most of her possessions into storage. In 2007, she fell behind on the rent for her unit, and the contents—boxes and trunks filled with books, magazines, newspapers, and personal effects—were bought for about $250 by a Chicago auctioneer, who offered them up in several lots. Included among those effects were some hundred thousand negatives and more than one thousand rolls of undeveloped film, many of which were bought by John Maloof, a Chicago neighborhood historian whose newfound collection was the source for the 2011 book Vivian Maier: Street Photographer. The material in Out of the Shadows was drawn from the collection of Jeffrey Goldstein, including “about sixteen thousand black-and-white negatives, 225 rolls of film, fifteen hundred color slides, eleven hundred vintage prints, and thirty home movies.” Although Maloof has a far larger stake in Maier’s legacy than Goldstein, the book of the latter’s collection, compiled and with text by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams, is both more substantial and more informative—not just sketching in much of Maier’s early history but illustrating it with her own photographs and providing plenty of firsthand observations of her quirky personality. The most vivid of these come from a young woman who grew up in Maier’s care. She remembers her nanny as “blunt and opinionated,” a woman who “used lemon juice and vinegar to wash her hair, wore men’s shirts because she claimed they were made better, never shaved her legs, swore in French, and could recite entire O. Henry stories from memory.”

None of this would be very interesting were it not for the fact that Maier was also a remarkably good, occasionally great, photographer. Comparisons to Lisette Model, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Leon Levinstein, and Harry Callahan are not just hype. Maier had an insatiably “hungry eye,” in the words of Evans; the woman who shut herself off at home opened up to the world when she took her camera out on the street. Whether she was prowling Chicago’s skid row or Highland Park’s tree-shaded lanes, she was alert and avid. People—usually passersby, unaware of her presence—were her prime subject, but she also made striking images of melting snow, piled newspapers, a dead horse, a burned chair. She took it all in—the winos, the church ladies, the sleeping children, the trash—with a combination of concern and detachment. She drew near; she held back; she remained an observer, sensitive but often stifled. Both books include a number of fine self-portraits, usually as shadows or reflections, in the style of Lee Friedlander, but when Maier does confront the camera, she usually looks wary, anxious, and pinched. Was she ever satisfied?

Maier died just as researchers were about to locate her; her work had been “discovered,” but she remained in the dark. Would fame have gratified or horrified her? Would she have withdrawn further or welcomed the attention? The work she hoarded and then abandoned survives against all odds. Through it, Maier lives on—no longer so difficult or remote, but engaging, witty, even brilliant: a woman of the world.

Vince Aletti reviews photography exhibitions for the New Yorker and photography books for Photograph.