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Vivian Maier: Vintage Prints | Exhibition review

Original photographic prints from the nanny street photographer.
Photograph: courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey Vivian Maier, Untitled (parade balloon), no date.
By Franck Mercurio |

The photographs of Vivian Maier (1926–2009) caused a sensation shortly after they were discovered in an abandoned storage locker in 2007. The story of this North Shore nanny-turned–street photographer is now legendary. Notoriously private about her photographic work, she amassed some 100,000 negatives and 3,000 prints over her lifetime.

A new exhibition at Corbett vs. Dempsey, “Vivian Maier: Vintage Prints,” presents a collection of 54 original photographic prints culled from a private collection. The show contrasts with earlier Maier exhibitions that displayed mostly new prints scanned from her negatives. But “Vintage Prints” emphasizes Maier’s “working images”—many of which appear to have been home processed by Maier herself. Their intimate scale, brownish patinas and irregular margins—cropped to emphasize certain formal or compositional concerns—all provide clues to Maier’s original artistic intent.

The photographic prints reveal an artist who produced amazingly strong compositions on the fly. “She had an incredible formal sense for a street photographer,” says co-owner and gallery director Jim Dempsey. Her Untitled (self portrait) (no date) is representative of Maier’s masterful balancing of dark and light, shape and line, foreground and background, all within a well-conceived asymmetrical composition.

Maier had a talent for capturing the personalities of random people she met on the street. Looking at face after face—sleeping hobos, mischievous children, worried old women, serious businessmen—I wondered, who were these people? What were their stories? We’re left with only silent, compelling images, reflective of the enigmatic photographer herself.

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