Vivian Maier, photographer

“Vivian Maier, nanny photographer.” Maier’s dramatic photographs are everywhere today — on gallery walls, in books, on TV and film. The constant references to her as the nanny photographer cruelly demean her work and talent.  She was a street photographer, period. And a very good one, with a remarkable eye for composition, lighting and texture in scenes of everyday urban life.  

The current exhibit at the Chicago History Museum is small but well curated and displayed. It features 18 rolls of her film displayed unedited as a simulated film strip circling the gallery. Dozens of very large portraits and urban scenes show us why black-and-white photography is such a dramatic medium.  (She shot with a twin-lens Rolleiflex in 2.25 x 2.25 black-and-white film.)

Images for this exhibit come from the Jeffrey Goldstein collection (Vivian Maier Prints Inc.) Acquired in 2010, the Goldstein collection (only one of the collections of Maier work) includes more than 15,000 negatives, 1,000 prints, 30 homemade movies, and numerous slides. The exhibit is open through summer 2013.  Do not miss it.

You can’t help but leave a Maier exhibit with a feeling of sadness.  Her work is so powerful and exciting and now so celebrated.  Had her work been shown when she was alive, she would have been profiled, publicized, feted, invited to speak at gallery events and art festivals. She might have published her own books and made her own films. Instead, she died too poor to even pay the rent on the storage lockers where her many boxes of negatives were stored. Total strangers discovered those boxes, scanned her thousands of negatives and undeveloped film, and now have presented her work to the world. Fortunately, they all have done this with sensitivity and respect for her art.

For more information on Vivian Maier, her life and work, see the three-part series that ran this summer on Chicago Tonight on WTTW, channel 11.

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