Out of the Shadows, I See Vultures. Vivian Maier’s Photography

I’m 12 feet down the hallway of the Vivian Maier exhibit and I’m trying not to cry and I’m trying to figure out a reason.

I walked in with a cursory sense of the photographer. I’d watched a trailer for one of the movies coming out about her, so I knew the bare minimum. She’d been a nanny for several families. She walked through life with a camera and took lots of photos she hardly showed anyone. After her death, she was “discovered.” And in the past few years, she’s become quite a phenomenon.

This mystery is heightened in the first few photographs on display – self portraits of her shadow on an ordinary street in one shot and an electric box in another. She also took many self portraits in mirrors and other reflective surfaces, often not looking into the photograph, but elusively off to the side.

Vivian Maier, Minneapolis Photo Center

Vivian Maier, Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, Minneapolis Photo Center, Minneapolis

The exhibit, “Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows,” at the Minneapolis Photo Center will affect you. Maier documented life in the 1950s and 1960s one roll of film at a time, most often with her Rolleiflex camera. She’d follow the children she was watching, or take the train into downtown Chicago (or New York City, Los Angeles, Paris and many more cities), and take 12 shots a day. Many of those were just single takes of one subject before moving on. An amazing number of those shots are good.

Her subjects, besides herself and her shadow: backs of heads, arms, details, indigent people on the street, strangers who seem fine with someone who had to get within three feet to get a close up while holding her camera at waste height. The photos depict children going to school, a man holding a live duck, a guy catching a nap on a loading dock, trash can full of light bulbs, shadows on a sidewalk. In a time before digital film and Instagram, she was taking pictures of everything and anything.

Vivian Maier, Minneapolis Photo Center

Vivian Maier, Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, Minneapolis Photo Center, Minneapolis

Vivian Maier, Minneapolis Photo Center

Vivian Maier, Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, Minneapolis Photo Center, Minneapolis

The humanity on display in the photos, even the pictures of objects, is breathtaking at times, and I find myself trying to keep standing. It’s a glimpse into everyday life, a photo-journalism master class, that captures an era in square photographs. Each photo seems to say as much about the artist as it does the person depicted – an achievement few can claim and what separates people like Maier from the rest of us camera phone schlubs.

At the Photo Center, they play a 50 minute documentary about Maier, wherein visitors can learn more about this artist. Here are the broad strokes:

Vivian Maier, born 1926, died 2009. She grew up in France and America, and for much of the 1950s-1970s worked as a nanny. She took picture after picture, not even developing many of them, hardly ever showing them to anyone. But she kept the photos with her. In one attic where she lived while working for a family, the weight of these photos threatened the stability of the floor.

She spent all her earnings on film, equipment and storage. She was cagey with others about her personal life, rarely ever divulging her history. None of her work beyond the 1980s seems to have survived.

Near the end of her life, she was nearly homeless. Her former charges helped with her lodging. In 2008, she slipped and fell on some ice and never recovered. It was her lapsed payments for storage that led to the contents being auctioned off in 2007. A real estate agent named John Maloof ended up with many of the negatives. He now owns more than 90 percent of the works. Most of the rest, including the pictures in this exhibit, are owned by Jeffrey Goldstein, a Chicago art collector.

Vivian Maier, Minneapolis Photo Center

Vivian Maier, Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, Minneapolis Photo Center, Minneapolis

Vivian Maier, Minneapolis Photo Center

Vivian Maier, Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, Minneapolis Photo Center, Minneapolis

This is where my moral compass starts to go haywire and where things get sketchy. Hold on.

The film, “The Vivian Maier Mystery,” is one of several documentaries that have already sprouted up about her – a testament to the pull of the Vivian Maier story. One of the talking heads in the film, Joel Meyerowitz, noted the problems inherent with the whole Vivian Maier narrative. He said with a couple people controlling and editing her work before anyone else sees it, we are not getting the whole story. The more I think about it, the more I agree. The people in control of her work have a lot to lose or gain from the carefully crafted narrative they have assembled. Hence the books and movies they are assembling.

Here is someone who led a solitary life even though she worked with children. Even before she was dead, she lost her life’s work because she fell behind on her storage bills. Now one person controls 90 percent of that work, with the rest divided between just a few others.

My problem is it all feels a bit too vulture-ish. Picking the carcass before it’s even cold. I don’t think my hackles would be raised if the proceeds from the work went to a next of kin (she has none) or charities that helped undiscovered photographers or something Maier would have approved.  It’s hard not to speculate that she had some psychological issues, what with the antisocial behavior, the hoarding, the being and artist in general. Near as I can tell though, any value in raising her profile in the art world is going directly to a few pockets. Even getting web-quality copies to run with this article has been tougher than any other exhibit I’ve reviewed. (I got the selections here off the web, but all were at this show. You can easily lose yourself for some time in a Google image search for Vivian Maier.)

The fact that this narrative just fits in too easily with the romantic mythology of the undiscovered artist, unappreciated until after he or she is gone, is too hard to ignore. It’s so easy to fall in love with the story of Vivian Maier, to feel akin with her, because who doesn’t feel unappreciated and undiscovered? We all feel like Salieri in the face of a Mozart at times in our lives. And since she never married or had children, it’s much more easy, convenient even, to capitalize on her story and legacy. It’s noble to want to spread her work to new audiences, but the relative monopoly of her work makes the motives too suspect to dismiss.

And suddenly I realize why I’m tearing up after 12 feet of photographs. The beauty of the photos of ordinary, every day people just trying to get through life, combines with the tragedy of exploiting one of those very people and making lots of money off her photographs.

It’s exhilarating. It’s gutting.

VIVIAN MAIER, VIVIAN MAIER: OUT OF THE SHADOWS, MINNEAPOLIS PHOTO CENTER, MINNEAPOLIS through MARCH 1, 2014

Related exhibits at:

Harold Washington Library, Chicago, March 29 – Sept. 28

Scott Nichols Gallery, San Francisco, through April 26

Portrait Society Gallery, Milwaukee, through March 8

Cleveland Print Room, Cleveland, though Feb. 23

Vivian Maier, Minneapolis Photo Center

Vivian Maier, Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, Minneapolis Photo Center, Minneapolis

Leave a Reply

by Joel Hagen
in Focus on the Midwest

Wed Development by THX88.net Digital Art Factory