Something very interesting happens when a person encounters a photograph of Vivian Maier. They stop, watch closely, and find themselves wondering where Maier was standing when she took this photo. You start to look for Maier in his photos. Whether outside or inside the image. There is often a shadow, a reflection, a hand or a finger in the frame if you spend enough time with the image. She is the punctum; and it is not by accident. Try taking a photo of her photos, and not only do you have an image of multiple fractured highlights, but you end up in the photo as well.
This is what happened to me and almost every viewer encountering a picture of Maier at the Chicago History Museum last week. We all started playing a little game of contorting our bodies to position ourselves as she would have. Look at the photo for traces of the woman and her camera. We wonder how she saw what she saw. Maier’s world is elusive and distant, even in color.
Exhibited at the Chicago History Museum, “Vivian Maier: in color” is a multimedia exhibit showcasing 65 color images taken during her days as a nanny in suburban Chicago from the 1950s to the 1970s. Hosted by guest curator Frances Dorenbaum, the show allows today’s visitors coming out of at home going to museums to reflect on the striking parallels between Maier’s gaze and ours today – Maier could observe people without being seen herself. From what little we know of her life, she didn’t even want people to know where she lived, using a post office box to receive her mail rather than a home address; when working as a home nanny, she required a lockable bedroom door. She has often lied about her personal story.
Vivian Maier is one of the great puzzles of the art world. She took over 150,000 photographs in her lifetime, but hardly showed them to anyone. Maier, who died in 2009 at the age of 83, funded her photography by working as a nanny for nearly 40 years with families on the North Coast of Chicago. On her days off or on outings with the children in her care, she wandered the streets of Chicago with her camera, sometimes also interviewing people she photographed. Her work was discovered posthumously in 2010. “Vivian Maier: In Color” brings together 65 previously unseen photographs for an intimate show.
“Vivian Maier: in color”
Until May 8, 2023, Tue-Sat 9:30 a.m.-4: 30 p.m., Sun 12 p.m.-5 p.m., Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark, 312-642-4600, chicagohistory.org, $ 19, $ 17 for students and seniors, children 18 and under free.
The show is full of commentaries and mural texts that give context to its world. Maier looks through, looks up, down, looks behind to avoid “the risk of getting too close to a stranger,” the text on the wall says. There is security from a distance, to be observed without committing, to be reflected. There are several self-portraits in the series, peculiar even for someone as enigmatic as Maier. As you browse the show, you wonder about the woman more than the images. Was she trying to find herself in the refractions? Are the objects also self-portraits?
It’s a show full of strengths. There is a stunning 1959 image of two black women looking directly at the camera while framing a group of white businessmen with an American flag in the background. The opening self-portrait is bright and clear in Maier’s reflections while the bracketing self-portrait at the end is complex refraction. A woman looks at her bedroom while Maier watches her just outside the doorframe. The Art Institute of Chicago’s lions are only recognizable by what they frame: the Chicago skyline and posters on billboards. The Chicago Stock Exchange building is nothing but metal and bricks and the people around it. Maier was there, seeing it happen. She was also there, making sure no one saw her witness. “I’m kind of a spy,” she would tell people. “I am the mysterious woman.”
There is a strange parallel to the world we currently live in with what she saw. We look at the world in turmoil. We watch the spring from outside our windows. We seek and try to understand the intersections and tensions in the world in which we live. Maier just managed to capture him. It almost triggers the privacy of his job. Her world is vital and dynamic, and life takes place around her; Whether it’s the intimacy of falling asleep on a train or holding hands in public or the languor of eating alone from a lunchbox, Maier makes everyday life extraordinary by looking at it from under a crack in the wall. She gives him that attention.
On a wall of portraits of the show, we can imagine him, with his camera, a Rolleiflex, operated on the level of the chest. They were certainly the ones she had asked permission to take. This is where the commissioner’s presence is most felt in the show. You wonder about these people and their names. There is no race in the titles of the photographs but you can see the parallels that you are asked to draw. There are eight photos, of people of all races and ages. Put side by side, you see the differences in their context, expression, the type of clothes they wear, the way their eyes and face feel safe or not enough in the presence of a camera. Recalling Tonika Lewis Johnson’s Folded Map Project, these folks are Chicagoans, but what does that mean to each of them, especially pitted against each other as the series allows?
“Vivian Maier: In Color” is truly a curatorial spectacle – from the framing with white cardboard to the size of the photos – there is an elusiveness built into the way you encounter the work. You have to get closer to the photo to fully examine it. These are not larger than life prints. The text on the wall reflects the curator’s thought process. Like us, Frances Dorenbaum also asks if the subject agreed to be photographed or if Maier intended to show us his work as we are today, in an art gallery, in the world of fine art. arts.
The exhibition also provides an opportunity to elaborate and integrate the racial context into Maier’s work. We know very little about how politically charged Maier was, but there are specific racial considerations and a critical awareness of racial theory at play in the show’s curation. There are two very poignant arrangements: in a striking quartet towards the end of the show, a photo shows President Eisenhower entering a hotel lobby, captured from an angle that shows his face like the face of another man; at the moment, only the bold lettering is a signifier of its power. In a frame opposite to this, you see a procession gathering in its celebration. There is a group of laughing police officers in a photo on top as a black child watches the celebration unfold. He is closely held by a woman, presumably his mother. Towards the end of the show, there are two pictures of children. One is two white children playing with a garden hose, the water filtering their very clear joy. On the other side, two black children are looking out of a window; they are suspicious and suspicious – their joy comes from being held in a fist of metal and glass.
In Maier’s work, the only thing to control is how the photos are laid out, what stories the curator decides to center on the images he has. What faces are we looking at and what do you take away from this arrangement? What can we understand from the woman who managed to get away with being invisible to the world while creating such a visible legacy? v