Vivian Maier: Anthology review – the attentive and intimate images behind the myth | Photography

IDuring her lifetime, while working as a nanny in New York and Chicago and living an intensely private existence, Vivian Maier simultaneously created approximately 150,000 photographs, her other life unknown even to those who employed her. Unsurprisingly, given the creative canonization that followed the discovery of her archive in 2007, Vivian Maier’s mythos have tended to receive as much, if not more, attention than her actual images. This skilfully curated exhibition, comprising only 140 photographs, helps to correct this imbalance.

Anthology highlights the range of Maier’s work – street scenes, snatched portraits and playful self-portraits as well as formal architectural studies, urban still lifes and angular close-ups of arms, torsos, skin and fabric – but also her eye for moments of quiet intimacy or daydreaming. Sometimes she seems so close to her subjects that you want to know what happened right after they heard her shutter click. Often, one or two individuals are held in her attention, frozen in the hustle and bustle of the street and bathed in shadow and light: a young woman in profile, her face veiled, appears both glamorous and mysterious as if she was going out of a black film; two women, both draped in fox fur stoles, taken from behind while deep in conversation; a dashing, hair-dressed young man stares intently at a pigeon that has landed, wings outstretched, on his hand to peck at a bag of birdseed.

‘Presciently conceptual’: Self-portrait, New York, 1953.

At other times, she films from high up in the streets, focusing on the widescreen play of body silhouettes against the angles and railings of mid-century modernist Manhattan. She seems to have embraced each new challenge, or perhaps anticipated the changing nature of the medium as it moved from simple documentary to something more expressively exuberant. When, for example, she began using color film in the late 1950s, her approach became looser, more playful, as if fascinated by the rich hues and deep, painterly tones as much as by the subject matter.

Born in New York City in 1926 to European immigrant parents, Maier was clearly an instinctive, insular and reserved outsider, but totally driven by her vocation. As a photographer, she was removed from, but constantly alert to, the myriad small human dramas of the modernist city. That said, she was neither a detached photographer nor a predator, her quiet focus placing her in the creative company of people like Helen Levitt, rather than more confrontational street photographers such as Garry Winogrand.

The fact that Maier often brought her young proteges with her when she photographed may have added to her anonymity on the streets. The children must surely have been bound by a vow of omertà because, like the documentary Finding Vivian Maier attests, even those who thought they knew her were surprised at the audacity of her clandestine creative life. Most striking perhaps, in terms of our fame-obsessed contemporary culture, was his complete lack of interest in exhibiting his work, let alone embracing the attention that might have come with that kind of exposure. His achievement seems to have been accomplishment enough and has undoubtedly brought its own kind of solitary freedom.

Chicago, 1956, which foreshadows “the kind of large-format paintings” created by Thomas Struth three decades later.
Chicago, 1956, which foreshadows “the kind of large-format paintings” created by Thomas Struth three decades later.

This distillation of his work creates a powerful feeling of an artist on a journey of discovery entirely of his own making. Perhaps the most dramatic creative leap occurred when Maier began photographing in color and moved from the imposed formalism of a twin-lens Rolleiflex camera, held at waist height, to the freedom of a 35mm Leica with viewfinder. . The tell-tale details that have drawn her throughout her career suddenly become more playful and textured: a woman’s legs stretched out on a brightly painted park bench; a close-up of a woman’s waist, from which hang two handbags, one embossed with faux leaves, the other filled with brightly colored flowers. Even more startling is a formal study of an elegantly dressed woman and two children standing in a Chicago art gallery, which foreshadows the kind of large format formal paintings that Thomas Struth began to produce in famous museums three decades later. late.

Maier’s portraits of children can only be intriguing, given his daily work. As contemporary British photographer Vanessa Winship notes in a wall text, they tend to be “unwaveringly direct.” An example is a posed portrait of a young girl standing with her arms crossed in front of a shop window, her gaze so intent that it takes a moment to notice her dirt-streaked face and tear-filled eyes. It is a complex image, haunting and haunting, vulnerable yet provocative.

Most of the time, Maier photographed children as she photographed adults: as themselves, without artifice or sentimentality. They often inhabit the same urban environment, long gone, as their hardened parents: messy streets and sidewalks, buildings and urban wastelands, where they pose, play and gaze suspiciously or stoically at the strange, straight-featured lady. with the camera.

September 18, 1962.
September 18, 1962.

It seems oddly fitting, if somewhat out of place, that the odd straight-featured lady with the camera also occasionally appears in the artwork. His self-portraits are by turns mischievous, conniving, almost ghostly and sly, presciently conceptual. It’s as if she were saying, “Here I am, hidden in plain sight.

In many ways, Maier was a woman apart and decidedly ahead of her time, entering the frame with a quiet assurance that may also, come to think of it, have underpinned her cheerful indifference to any form of recognition or acknowledgment. acknowledgement. Isn’t that, in itself, a supreme form of self-confidence?

At some point, around the start of the new millennium, Maier stopped working, plagued by financial difficulties. Homeless for a time, she was cared for by a family who had once hired her as a nanny. His archives languished in a warehouse until they were sold to pay mounting rent arrears. She died, unnoticed and unrecognized, in 2009 at the age of 83, just two years after the discovery of her vast body of work and the start of her ongoing canonization. The arc of her extraordinary life lends itself all too easily to romantic tragedy, but, judging by her rich and varied oeuvre, Vivian Maier has never doubted her own artistic worth. She just did it her way.

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