On The Epic Humanity Of “Vivian Maier: Out Of The Shadows”

In 2011,when Vivian Maier: Street Photographer was published, it confirmed in a single volume that the hype about Maier as one of the 20th Century’s great unheralded photographers was correct.  Her photography, mostly from the streets of Chicago and New York, predominantly from the ’50s and ’60s, spoke for itself, and what it said clearly was that Maier was a master, that she wielded her Rolleiflex with literally the best of them.  But there was an added element to the narrative, the art-martyr fairy tale emanating from her work as a nanny, the subsequent discovery of thousands of her negatives, after the storage company she could no longer pay sold them.  A considerable body of Maier’s work went up for auction shortly before her death following a fall on the ice.  There was an element of the Rodriguez tale here, only unlike him, rather than finding out the (photography) world understood her greatness, Maier died without knowing.  The internet’s posthumous judgment that Maier was an unknown genius had a Van Gogh-like poignancy to it.  And we are all suckers for that story.

Last week, the story was updated when the New York Times Lens blog alerted us to a second volume of Maier’s photography, this one entitled Vivian Maier: Out Of The Shadows.  The new book adds considerable depth to our knowledge of both her photography and her life.  For the book is shaped around the voices of people who knew Maier, who could offer both biography and snapshots, if you will, of what she was like. Even as the photographs capture different dimensions of her work, the narrative filled in blanks.  The new book makes her saga, if anything, sadder, because while it confirms her eccentricity, her difficult personality, and gives greater detail to the circumstances in which she lived, it also makes clear something we had not really understood before: that Maier’s photography wasn’t simply the hobby of a nanny with two days off each week and proximity to the Loop.  Maier was, from an early age, a photographer, first and foremost, whose only means of financial support was to take care of the children of upper middle class families in Chicago’s leafy suburbs.

It’s a big difference.  Maier was an artist, who happened to be a nanny, not a nanny who happened to be an artist.  That she seems never to have tried to get her photography viewed by anyone who could have brought it to the market is heartbreaking.

The photography in this new volume is as engrossing as it was in the first book.  And there are thousands more images we have yet to see.

When Maier first was becoming a sensation, and some critics were cool to her work — or maybe it would be better to say, when some wrote her off as a very gifted amateur about whom too big a fuss was being made — someone wrote — can’t remember who — that it was her bad luck that her work was coming out as a jumble, that we were privy not just to her great pictures but her bad ones too.  Because she wasn’t in a position to curate her own work.  And it was a reminder of the aphorism that the difference between a professional photographer and an amateur is that we don’t get to see the pro’s mediocre shots.  What is clear from the very strong collection of images in Out Of The Shadows is that a strong curatorial approach, in this case by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams, renders Maier’s photography all the stronger.  As more work becomes available to us, we suspect that Maier’s place in the same circle as Gary Winogrand and even Bruce Davidson will be assured.

One Response to “On The Epic Humanity Of “Vivian Maier: Out Of The Shadows””

  1. Andrew McAllister Says:

    Looking forward to this new book of her work. Amazing artist!

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