It can be difficult to disentangle Vivian Maier’s photographs from the Vivian Maier story. As has been well documented in articles, reviews, exhibitions, a documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier (2013), and a new book, Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found (Harper Design), the artist was a reclusive Chicago nanny who was also, unbeknownst to her employers, a voracious and keen-eyed street photographer. When Chicago realtor and amateur historian John Maloof bought a box of her pictures at a local auction in 2007, he ultimately discovered some 100,000 negatives, most of which she’d never printed. Maier died in 2009, before Maloof was able to find her.
That points to some of the issues surrounding her work. Would Maier have wanted her photographs to be exhibited? And if so, which ones and how would she have printed them? (Similar questions have been raised about Garry Winogrand’s unprinted negatives.) There are also conflicts related to her heirs and her estate playing out in court. (Howard Greenberg handles print sales for Maloof’s collection, and hasn’t yet been affected by the legal proceedings.)
All that aside, the prints on view suggested a gifted photographer who knew precisely what she was looking for. Again and again, Maier captured odd moments of interaction and unexpected juxtapositions that illustrate the frenetic texture of urban life, from a boy in a suit and tie solemnly eating ice cream to a bus in traffic, shrouded in fog. Her sense of humor was sharp and unsentimental: in one photograph, she used a mirrored pedestal to peer up the petticoats of a mannequin, while also catching the reflection of a man strolling by outside the store, smoking a cigarette.
She may have been a solitary soul, but she wasn’t too reclusive to put herself in many of her photographs, capturing her reflection or her shadow, not unlike Lee Friedlander. She wasn’t just snapping pictures; she was looking carefully, and composing photographically. In one image, she’s faintly visible in a shiny metal toaster; in another, this one in color, her bulky shadow falls across a patch of green grass scattered with yellow flowers.
That photograph, from June 1975, is one of a group of rare shots that Maier printed herself. Assembled together on one wall, they gave a sense of her editing, re-framing and selecting. There were four photographs of topless mannequins in a window, each one capturing a different group or angle, playfully altering the dynamics among the figures.
But Maloof’s selections give insight into Maier’s vision as well. Her pictures can be delightfully strange—the head of a mannequin, dressed in a scarf and knit hat, resting pensively on a chair—and occasionally sweet, as in a close-up of an older couple’s hands, loosely clasped. She was even in the right place at the right time for the odd celebrity photograph. How she captured a young and beautiful Lena Horne on the sidewalks of Chicago remains a mystery. Perhaps the only element of Maier’s story that is not perplexing is the smart, observant quality of the photographs themselves.