The Vivian Maier exhibit at the Chicago History Museum, titled Vivian Maier’s Chicago, is contained in one gallery space, which feels small and restrained considering her stunning and extensive talent, her simple yet mysterious life, and the fact that her work was virtually unknown until it was discovered after her death.
Though Vivian went viral in 2009, her story tweeted, blogged, reported, and discussed all over the internet. If you don’t know the eerie history of Maier and her work, here it is in a nutshell:
A young man named John Maloof was looking for original historic photos to include in a book he was co-writing on Portage Park, so he buys a box of negatives from a Chicago storage locker for around $400. He realizes that the photos are pretty good, posts some of them online, and finds that other people think so, too.
Like, a lot of people think so.
He wants to get in touch with the person who took the photographs to, well, ask advice about photography. Then Maloof finds the name Vivian Maier on one of the boxes. A google search yields an obituary of a woman by that name who had died months earlier after complications from a fall in downtown Chicago. He tracks down the rest of the boxes of negatives, audio, film, newspapers, and even a trunk of her clothes, acquiring about 90% of her belongings. Then he begins the arduous task of scanning the negatives and unveiling her story.
Here is what he pieced together from her belongings:
Vivian was a nanny who took breathtaking photos of the world around her in both black-and-white and later color film. She was also a bit of a hoarder, very private and quite eccentric. She never showed her photographs to anyone. She died poor and alone. Her work ranks among some of the world’s best street photography. The end.
The public has such a fascination with reclusive artists who have no interest in pushing their work toward a broader audience. The mystical Chinese poet Han-Shan, for example, lived as a hermit and carved his poetry into the surrounding stones, trees and houses where he resided. His work wasn’t recorded until Lu Ch’iu-yin, Governor of China’s T’ai Prefecture walked around and collected his words from off of those trees and cliffs. Franz Kafka demanded that all his work be burned upon his death, which we all know didn’t happen, thank goodness, and J.D. Salinger is rumored to have piles of unpublished manuscripts. Of course there’s pale, mousy Emily Dickinson who only published a very few of her own poems during her lifetime and yet after her death in 1886 she has never, ever been out of print. I think I can confidently add Vivian Maier to these peculiar, brightly talented cast of characters.
Along with our fascination with the hermit, we also tend to respond well to art that is not striving for the spotlight. We see it as somehow more pure, intimate, or genuine. We can be voyeurs into a kind of secret expression that does not consider but in contrast transcends the rather gross human desire for fame that taints most things. Vivian Maier fits both of these loose requirements perfectly.
I remember seeing the first exhibit of Maier’s work in the U.S. at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2011. The exhibit seemed sprawling, the compositions rich and extraordinary; all of this when John Maloof had only developed a fraction of her boxes and boxes of negatives. The fount of Maier’s talent seemed unending, a boon and an anomaly. The images were mounted on the wall. The focus was on the photographs, and nothing more, because that was more than enough.
But the Chicago History Museum has taken a more interactive approach that I daresay Maier may have frowned at. She may not have liked to see anyone showing her photos, but the way the Chicago History Museum has chosen to present Maier’s work is particularly unique. Let me explain:
When you enter the space, there are huge black-and-white portraits of Chicago faces and structures arranged in a sort of labyrinth in the center of the room. You must walk through this twisting avenue of pictures to see each one, turning and curving as the photos manipulate your direction. The space forces you to “take a little trip.” So you have gigantic images that anchor the center of the space and then you have a series of tiny images along the walls, which was the part I found to be more provocative. Her developed negative strips are mounted along the wall with a date and place. These little images ribbon around the room, and are titled things like, “A Winter Evening Walk, 1967.”
One must remember that the CHM is a history museum rather than an art museum and they have attempted to make that distinction in their curation of Vivian Maier’s Chicago. The focus is on images of Chicago, rather than on the opus of Vivian herself, so the space evokes a journey through a Chicago of a different time and place.
I personally greatly enjoyed seeing all the photos on a roll of Vivian film. Seeing how she composed an image, how she played with angles, people’s backs, a tree against the snow. All of that was wonderful for me to see. It was sort of a peek into her process and her eye, but I think she would have been mortified to know that they were on public display.
Just as I wouldn’t want the pages of my journal published in a book of my poetry, I don’t think she would want to see her rougher, more playful photographic “drafts” up there. The History Museum has succeeded in creating a solid visual history of ’60s Chicago using Maier’s photographs as the foundation, but boy, I am glad Vivian isn’t alive to see it.
The show runs through January 5, 2014. The Chicago History Museum is located at 1601 N. Clark.