Throughout her life, Vivian Maier was a relentless, talented photographic recorder but, until recently, her work had only been seen by a handful of acquaintances. Born in 1926 in New York to a French mother and Austrian father, Maier lived in rural France after her parents’ separation, before returning permanently to the US in 1951, where she worked as a nanny and died impoverished. In 2007, two years before her death, the contents of a storage facility she could no longer afford were auctioned and over 100,000 negatives were sold to a handful of buyers. Several photographs were posted online and met with great enthusiasm. As curator Daniel Blochwitz explains in this exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, when John Maloof (who now owns most of Maier’s work) sold some photographs via eBay, he came into contact with artist Allan Sekula. This marked the beginning of the transition from the random dissemination of Maier’s archive to a more coherent, thorough and ultimately profitable handling.
The narrative of Maier’s life and estate – captured in Maloof’s 2013 documentary Finding Vivian Maier – and the subsequent cohort of celebrity fans and ongoing wrangles over rights have obscured the reception of the work itself, which is rarely critically examined. Comparisons to such figures as Diane Arbus, August Sander and Weegee are merited, yet Maier’s oeuvre still lacks a body of academic expertise. ‘Taking the Long Way Home’, at the Photobastei in Zurich, is the largest exhibition to date of Maier’s work. Blochwitz has selected 164 black and white, medium-format images from New York and Chicago, which can be dated, from to her employment in those cities, to approximately 1951–56 and 1956–70, respectively. By this time, the artist had hit her photographic stride.
Maier’s work as a nanny fuelled her photographic practice: she would take the children in her care on long, exploratory walks through their cities and snap pictures as they went. The images that resulted illustrate the players and scenery: workers, shoppers, panhandlers, animals, storefronts and buildings – all at an intimate proximity. Because Maier herself never exhibited or edited her work, it can be difficult to pinpoint her specific interests, but the selection of works in this show suggests that she found all strata of a city’s population and their activities equally engaging. Here is life from cruel poverty to preening, privileged high society.
Some subjects, especially children (works in one gallery are hung lower so a younger audience can see their historic counterparts), seem entirely unaffected by her camera’s gaze; others respond warmly to it; still others look irritated. The figure least ruffled by the attention was Maier herself; at least 20 images here are self portraits, from silhouettes to reflections or images with the camera turned directly on herself. She observes herself coolly: a handsome woman often dressed in a long, heavy overcoat and hat. There’s little attempt to respond to the lens, to make herself attractive or empathetic – just once, the shadow of a grin appears as she catches herself in a mirror that a man is moving on or off a truck (Self Portrait, 1955). Sometimes she is her own prop – creating a shadow on a sunny day so that she can capture an image of a small object on the ground; sometimes she looks like a ghost moving through the city, unseen by passers-by but still caught on film. This authorial unconsciousness is scarcely feasible today in the era of the studied selfie. Throughout her life, Maier managed to retain the obliviousness of a child that hasn’t yet learned to pose. Her curiosity outweighed her self-consciousness. Judging from these images, being unassuming was a powerful tool, whichever way Maier’s lens was turned.
First published in Issue 179