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Master Photographer Gains Posthumous Acclaim

Street images capture dignity of the indigent

By Katherine H. Smith Created: January 18, 2012 Last Updated: February 20, 2013
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Vivian Maier, who immigrated to the United States as a refugee from World War II France, worked in Chicago as a nanny and chronicled the people and fashions of Chicago in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. (Chicago Cultural Center)

Vivian Maier, who immigrated to the United States as a refugee from World War II France, worked in Chicago as a nanny and chronicled the people and fashions of Chicago in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. (Chicago Cultural Center)

NEW YORK—Vivian Maier’s iconic street photographs, currently on exhibit at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City, have garnered rave reviews from pillars of the art establishment, fellow artists, and appreciative gallery audiences alike.

These photographs capture the very souls of their subjects, immortalizing them within the unique contexts of their respective lives. Maier is able to imbue each of these ordinary people with a simultaneously quiet, yet compelling dignity.

Whether a poorly dressed immigrant loitering on a city sidewalk, a drunken man carousing with his sweetheart, or the shadowy figures of a father walking his two children through a park at dusk, Maier’s aesthetic perspective compels the viewer to pay attention to each nuanced detail within the frame.

The unique legacy of this fascinating artist is much more than a collection of outstanding photographs.

Public interest in Maier’s remarkable talent is, ironically, overshadowed by even more zealous interest in her unremarkable personal life. She was a nanny for others’ children and her own most significant relationship was with her camera.

Maier spent her free time taking pictures of street life in America’s post-war golden age. Her passion for photography, however, was a guardedly private one. There are no records of Maier displaying her work either publicly or privately.

Ali Price, one of the curators of the current exhibition, attests that Maier even insisted on padlocking the door to her bedroom in the home of the families for which she nannied.

Vivian Maier left behind over 100,000 negatives, 3,000 prints, and hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film when she died in 2009. Some of her works are currently on display at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City. (Courtesy of Joyce Anderson)

Vivian Maier left behind over 100,000 negatives, 3,000 prints, and hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film when she died in 2009. Some of her works are currently on display at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City. (Courtesy of Joyce Anderson)

Additionally, Maier rented storage units to house her massive collections of photographs, undeveloped film, newspapers, books, mail, knick-knacks, outright refuse such as dented paint cans, and all other manner of odds and ends.

Ironically, her vast artistic contribution to the world of street photography, over 100,000 negatives, 3,000 prints, and hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film, as well as what we know about her private life, results primarily from this penchant for hoarding.

In 2007, several storage units housing Maier’s possessions, including her photographs, were auctioned due to her payment delinquency. John Maloof, at that time a 26-year-old real estate agent in Chicago, purchased a storage unit full of Maier’s pictures for $400, being as unaware as the rest of the world of their artistic worth.

Maloof’s later realization of Maier’s amazing talent led to his subsequent purchase of approximately 90 percent of her existing work.

At this juncture, Maloof sought the assistance of the noted photographer, Howard Greenberg, in order to further spotlight the significance of Maier’s art. These were the first indelible steps on the journey to Maier’s current acclaim by the art world.

Maloof is credited with first igniting the flame that has stimulated worldwide interest in Maier’s photography. In particular, Europeans have been intrigued with Maier’s work, resulting in plans for the exhibit to tour Spain, France, and Italy in the near future.

The Vivian Maier exhibit will remain at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City until Jan. 28. It is definitely worth experiencing, as underscored by the unusually high levels of foot traffic throughout the gallery this time of year.

The exhibit is enhanced by a display case of her personal effects and the availability of a copy of the recent book, “Vivian Maier: Street Photographer,” already on its third printing.

More information about the life and artistic work of this amazing woman can be accessed by logging onto vivianmaier.com. Additionally, some of her prints can be purchased through Howardgreenberg.com at prices ranging from $1,800–$5,000 per image.

Vivian Maier's photographs find now, three years after her death, wide acclaim. She was able to condense complex social situations and personal dramas into one photograph. (Chicago Cultural Center)

Vivian Maier's photographs find now, three years after her death, wide acclaim. She was able to condense complex social situations and personal dramas into one photograph. (Chicago Cultural Center)

Upcoming events include newly developed film, additional prints donated by families for whom she previously nannied, and the highly anticipated documentary by Maloof, “Finding Vivian Maier.”

In this film, Maloof reveals how he first discovered Maier’s work, became understandably fixated with sharing her unique artistic vision with the world, and undertook the quest to discover the woman behind the camera—a complex and opinionated free spirit who had the self-assurance to pursue her art without the need for external validation or approbation from others.

She traveled independently through dozens of foreign countries, consistently drawn to the destitute and bereft. Her lifelong fascination with capturing the inherent dignity of the indigent took an ironic twist in her later years. Three of the now-grown children she cared for rescued this proud soul from penury by providing her with the financial means to pay her rent and purchase essentials.

Joyce Anderson, a talented and successful New York City photographer, remarked on Maier’s uncanny ability to capture the effortless grace of pedestrian people in everyday life. In her professional opinion, Anderson elaborated, the distinguishing feature which catapulted Maier to posthumous and universal acclaim is her ability to see the details others often miss—nuances which generally go unnoticed, such as the emotional subtext to the expressions on her subjects’ faces. This keen observation provides insight into the mesmerizing quality of Vivian Maier’s photographs.

Visit the Greenberg Gallery and be inspired by the noble and sublime beauty beneath the veil of the outwardly plebian and mundane.

Katherine H. Smith writes the weekly advice column “Between You and Me,” appearing on the Living page on Mondays. She lives in Manhattan.




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