New York

Vivian Maier, Untitled, 1960–76, C-print, 3 1/8 × 4 3/4".

Vivian Maier, Untitled, 1960–76, C-print, 3 1/8 × 4 3/4".

Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier, Untitled, 1960–76, C-print, 3 1/8 × 4 3/4".

The recent exhibition of photographer Vivian Maier’s work was titled “In Her Own Hands”—exactly, at least on the surface, what the show was not. Maier (1926–2009) took tens of thousands of photographs while working as a nanny; she famously left behind a defaulted storage unit that included some prints and many more rolls of film that are now at the center of a debate between two different caretakers. Most of the works in this exhibition (dating from the early 1950s to the ’70s) have never before been shown and were printed last year, under the direction of John Maloof, by master printer Steve Rifkin. Maier’s photographs—their printing and dissemination—have not been in her own hands for some time.

Part of the attention around Maier’s estate is born of the romantic excitement of discovering a great photographer who lived anonymously among us for decades. Another is born of our fascination with the trope of the reclusive artist: How could someone not want to share her work publicly, particularly work that would certainly garner acclaim? (I don’t think this reticence is as unbelievable to women.) The 2014 prints were twelve by twelve inches, a little larger than most of those made during her lifetime, and were hung alongside a wall cluster of two dozen small C-prints taken and printed between 1960 and 1977 and fourteen other original black-and-whites, all of which invite us to ask a simple question: What, to cast the exhibition’s title in a better light, did Maier make of the world through the camera held squarely in her hands?

Certain themes running throughout her lifetime of images were wonderfully demonstrated here—a look back at Berenice Abbott and Eugène Atget via city blocks photographed as if landscapes, and mannequins photographed as if human. Her work also reveals an interest, like Lee Friedlander’s, in photography’s semiotic subjectivism, via the self-portraits Maier took by way of indexical transference: a hatted shadow falling across a patch of buttercups; sharp, tired eyes in a junkshop window mirror; a sun-blinded reflection on the side of a toaster. She was always making a claim for her view.

Two early works, just recently printed, stand out for their perspective, which recalls that of Garry Winogrand. In New York, NY, September 3, 1954, we find ourselves very close behind a tightly coiffed young woman wearing a pearl choker and pearl drop earrings. Her hair resembles tubes of uncooked paccheri pasta pinned in place and secured by a net, making the tiny thread that escapes from the shoulder of her dress that much more humanizing. In Chicago, IL, 1954, the strange angle of the photograph, which Maier created by shooting down into a mirror that a window mannequin poses on, reveals the dummy’s petticoats and the awkward fakeness of her anklebones; the mirror also catches a figure outside the store, perhaps a policeman, who appears beneath her skirt. Add a creeping swag of holiday greenery and the image is both a funny and eerie tableau of the unreal real—i.e., its own medium.

Maier’s gift was to make the most banal scenes appear rich with furtive beauty and sustained narration. We get jolts of the quick skill of her compositions—as when identical businessmen, walking down a train platform in a snowstorm, perform the image’s vanishing point in Untitled, 1955–65. But we are also encouraged to linger over scenarios that seem to say something about taking a picture itself, as in a small image of a child, all red-shirted torso and hands on hips, photographed from the back against a blue sky. It could be a picture by Luigi Ghirri. We are given so little—just a few primary colors and a partial subject—and yet there’s so much to parse: The child’s left hand glistens, as if she has just been sucking on it or trailing it in water, and two fingers on her right hand are quietly crossed, as if she is mid-wish, or about to tell a lie. And what is the man waiting for in the dark nightscape Chicago, IL, 1969, in which a car is parked near a street lamp, the driver’s hand on the top of the seat the only thing clearly discernible? How did Maier get such a shot? How do you see like that without being seen?

Prudence Peiffer