Sunday, January 16, 2011

Street Find

The photography world is all agog over the emerging  trove of astonishing pictures by a heretofore unknown street photographer, Vivian Maier, and there is something deliciously appropriate about the role the internet is playing in spreading her posthumous fame.

Miss Maier, who died a few years ago at the age of 83, is simultaneously the subject of a very flattering piece in the New York Times (online), a profile in Chicago Magazine, a show at the Chicago Cultural Center and several blogs.

She is also the subject of a televised interview showing, where else, on YouTube, conducted with the chief guardian and most likely beneficiary of her work.  Moreover, she is the subject line in thousands of emails from photographers, curators and admirers of the medium, most of whose messages begin with a variation on "Have you seen this amazing stuff?!".

Born in New York in 1926 to a French mother and Austrian father, she lived off and on in the U.S. and France many years before settling in the States for good in 1951.  In the mid-fifties she moved to Chicago where for the next forty years she worked for various families as a nanny.

Some time around 1930, Maier and her mother appear to have lived briefly with Jeanne Bertrand, a successful portrait photographer, but little else about that relationship or influence is known.  What remains of her personal effects included a number of monographs of photographers.   What we know of her years as a nanny can be read and heard in various interviews with former employers and charges alike.

Whatever else propelled Maier to take pictures remains something of a mystery.

Maier is hardly the first photographer to work the streets, but she is that rarity among those who command our attention precisely because she appears never to have sought it.  How much she knew about  contemporary photographers is unknown at this time. The monographs found among her possessions and a well-documented penchant for routinely taking the children under her care to cultural events strongly suggest she was familiar with at least some of them..  Moreover, she lived in one of the major photographic centers in the country at a time when Harry Callahan and Ray Metzker among others were actively working.  One can clearly see echoes of Callahan, Weegee, Diane Arbus, August Sander and other contemporaries in her work but these similarities may be due as much to period dress, a square format, and a preponderance of odd, eccentric characters in the city as to conscious emulation.

The freshness of her vision is undeniable.  Maier's sense of light and composition is impressive.  Her feel for humor and irony is Gallic and profound.  (The French, in particular, always see right through Americans on their home turf.  Witness the work of Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, who was Swiss.)

Apparently, on her days off Maier walked the streets of Chicago, Rolleiflex in hand.  No neighborhood nor subject was off limits to her. She was as likely to photograph women in mink stoles standing on downtown streets as a young boy riding an over-sized horse underneath the Loop.  She was also as likely to photograph herself reflected in the mirror of a cigarette vending machine.  Self-portraits abound, her camera nearly always visible, as if she would occasionally pause to record herself as the artist she aspired to be but perhaps could not quite bring  herself to believe she was.

The sheer range of subject matter and sensibility further underscores Maier worked with few apparent conscious constraints, particularly of audience.  The thousands of unprinted negatives she left along with hundreds of undeveloped rolls of film strongly suggest she was too busy looking to worry about being seen.