Photographer Vivian Maier: a great talent, discovered late

How many brilliant artists are lost to time, their work and talent never revealed to the public eye?

Vivian Maier was almost one such artist. An introvert by nature who grew up partly in France and partly in the United States, Maier spent her adult life in Chicago as a nanny or “child nurse,” as she wrote on her legal papers. In her spare time she would roam the city streets, her camera forever hanging around her neck, slyly capturing city life with a meek demeanor and a sharp eye.

Los Angeles (Self-Portrait, Tiled Mirror Reflection)
August 1955; Image Size: 12”x12” Silver gelatin, printed 2013

By the time she died, Maier had taken more than 120,000 photographs, but few people had seen her work. It was only when a storage locker was sold to pay her debts that the extent — and quality — of her work came to light.

Untitled (Man Leaning on Ladder)
1955; Image Size: 12”x12” Silver gelatin, printed 2012

Now, the majority of her work is divided into three different private collections, which have served to inspire a number of books and documentaries.

“I think that the work is both artistic and accessible and that’s what makes it so unique,” said Rich Cahan, co-author of the book “Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows,” which is also the name of the exhibition opening this weekend at Mpls Photo Center. “It’s undeniably beautiful and it’s understandable.”

 

Chicago Area (Mother and Children in Car)
1968; Image Size: 12”x12” Silver gelatin, printed 2012

The idea of Vivian Maier not being alive to enjoy — and profit from — the new-found popularity of her work might seem tragic to some, but Cahan sees it differently.

“Maybe it’s the only way it could play out. She was such a private person, that if someone had approached her and asked to put her images on the internet or in a gallery, I think the likelihood would have been that she would not have approved,” he said. “The fact is that she did pass away, and the photos fell into the hands of people who appreciated and learned what to do with them, which is remarkably sweet.”

Wilmette, IL (Girls Wading in Lake Michigan)
July 1968 Silver gelatin, printed 2013 Edition of 15, 12 x 12 inches

Even though he has written a book about Maier, which involved untold interviews with people who knew her, Cahan admits she still eludes easy understanding.

“She’s still ‘in the shadows.’ And while at first glance that’s a disappointment, on second thought I think it’s good she remains a mystery,” he said. “That was an important part of her life.”

Later, he adds “I’m glad she wasn’t famous in her lifetime. She took photographs for herself, and that’s why it’s so direct.”

Vivian Maier, Self-Portrait, Expressions, CA, 1968

For Cahan, her life and her work offer a lesson for everyone.

“She was dismissed as a person during life; she looked like a homeless woman and she had trouble making connections with people,” he said. “She drifted through on the edges of society.”

And yet Maier viewed society — all of it — with a detailed and sympathetic eye.

“And I think all the people that pass us, that we dismiss, have something to say if we just slowed down and looked,” Cahan said.

“Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows” opens at the Mpls Photo Center tomorrow evening with a reception at 6:30 p.m. and runs through March 1.