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Finding Vivian Maier Chicago Street Photographer at the Chicago Cultural Center | Art review

Time Out Chicago's Lauren Weinberg finds that Maier's work justifies the hype.

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Genius Mary Poppins-esque photographer discovered post mortem was a callous headline, but Gawker introduced some welcome levity to the breathless recent coverage of Vivian Maier (1926–2009).

Sure, Maier’s life story is so surprising that it could be a movie. (A Kickstarter-funded documentary is in preproduction.) Born in New York, she spent some of her early life in France. After moving to Chicago in 1956, she worked for decades as a nanny on the North Shore. Her employers remember her as an eccentric loner who was good with kids, according to a story by Nora O’Donnell in the January issue of Chicago. But, as WTTW, The New York Times and countless other media outlets have reported, the nanny led a secret life as a brilliant street photographer.

Though Maier left behind more than 100,000 negatives and 3,000 prints, her photos were never shown publicly—much of her film wasn’t even developed—until Chicagoan John Maloof purchased a box of negatives from her repossessed storage locker at a 2008 auction. Maloof is neither the first person to rediscover her work nor its only collector, but he’s invested a staggering amount of time and effort into reconstructing her archive and championing her legacy.

It’s a relief to discover that Maier’s work represents more than a great story. While the Museum of Modern Art, judging from Maloof’s comments to WTTW, isn’t yet ready to include Maier in the photography canon, her photos are often as formally striking and psychologically charged as those of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Lisette Model. (My favorite, 108th St. East, New York, NY, Sept. 28, 1959, conveys an apartment building’s sense of community by preserving at least four interactions among friends and neighbors taking place outside its front door.) Diane Arbus could have taken New York, NY, Sept. 1953, a black-and-white portrait of a boy posing in a tacky living room, smiling smugly as a parakeet climbs on his stained shirt.

“Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer,” the artist’s first retrospective in the U.S. (a gallery in Norway hosted one last fall), presents about 80 prints that she created from the 1950s through the 1970s, which curator Lanny Silverman culled from 1,000 photos in Maloof’s trove. Most are black-and-white ink-jet prints made from scans of Maier’s square negatives. Vitrines in the two-room exhibition contain a few of her smaller original prints alongside her cameras, correspondence and hats.

In the exhibition’s wall text, Silverman notes the resemblance between Maier’s photos and those of established artists including Cartier-Bresson, Model, Arbus, Weegee, and Chicagoans Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan. Her work is unique, however, in its focus on children: Whether they mug for the camera, remain oblivious to Maier’s presence or stare at her suspiciously, as do two boys from Canada (pictured, above right), the artist had a remarkable ability to capture the dynamics among kids as well as their attitudes toward adults.

Maier paid close attention to fashion and class differences, photographing the urban poor as well as the clothes and handbags of affluent women. The artist also makes clever use of reflections and doppelgängers. In one of the show’s intriguing color photos, Untitled, October, 1979, she captures a man selling souvenirs of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Chicago just as he obscures his own face with the pontiff’s portrait.

Maier wasn’t completely cut off from the art world. She grew up with a professional photographer, and her surviving books indicate her familiarity with the history of photography. But “her intentions about an artistic career are nowhere to be found,” Silverman writes. I’m glad she finally has one.

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