Vivian Maier’s Humanist Eye: An Overdue Introduction

Monroe Gallery’s exhibit of photographs by the recently “discovered” Vivian Maier is a is a long overdue introduction to Maier’s marvelous images, and a revelation on multiple levels.  While her corpus is a historic discovery, it’s also a cool blast of unpretentiousness, and a reminder of what good photography looks like.

Maier’s story tends to the textbook risen-from-obscurity: She was a poor, periodically homeless woman who obsessively photographed with cheap cameras, through the 1950s and 60s. Maier never sought recognition. She focused her lens on the working class and the poor. In 2009 she died, and a collector by the name of John Maloof bought her mostly undeveloped negatives (some 100,000 of them) at an auction.

Maloof, blown away by what he’d found, thankfully decided to take Maier’s work public.

Vivian Maier was a humanist and, while maybe eccentric, far from egocentric.  She was interested in the urban world, yet her work is wonderfully varied with attention to architectural and object-based images, as, for example, in  a humorous picture of a half-melted chair having survived a conflagration on a street corner. She had a gifted eye for context. We see families, criminals, drunks, beggars, occasionally the rich, many  working class. A comparison to Helen Levitt comes to mind.

Sept 28, 1959, 108th St. East, New York, NY, by Vivian Maier

There is a gritty side too. If some of Maier’s images suggest Weegee in the police station, a distinctive felt experience of Maier’s work is her heart sense, compassion that works through her understanding of the rugged, hard side of urban life. She vividly evokes the stories she sees. She expertly draws our focus into the image: A bent man on crutches is led into an iron chamber by police while a scattered crowd watches from a cloud of steam on the street. A child looks up wide-mouthed at the sky while a little girl loads a tiny mattress into a pram. A couple in the tiny window of a Chop Suey joint eating their meal becomes a universe unto themselves, private yet tantalizing. The relationship of structure, expression, action, and context truly makes each of her images speak largely. It should also be noted that Maier never labeled her images, avoiding forcing a dialogue between title and subject.

Undated, New York, NY, by Vivian Maier

Not all viewers will find her work transcendent or startling, but her compositional talent is undeniable. Maier’s work succeeds on at least three crucial levels: she makes urban life in mid 20th-century America palpable, she evokes kinship and sympathy with her subjects, and she manages the hardest trick; creating an endlessly fascinating story with a single image. A final bit of praise: the prints look marvelous. How rare and exciting to see a gelatin silver print in photography’s digitally dominated world.

A few quibbles, however. Not enough of Maier’s photos are hung in the space. Why does Monroe’s website, for example, show so many more photos than the physical show? Also, there were several typos in what was clearly a hastily written statement of her life and work. Monroe: if you’re going to present a new artist with educational material, hire a proofreader. Still, this is a fine show.

It is a great pity that Maier’s photographs were unknown while she was alive (and lived destitute, while the works now sell for thousands), and this fact imbues the show with a bittersweet undertone. We should be glad that we finally get to meet her.

While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see. ~Dorothea Lange

From February 3- April 22, 2012 at Monroe Gallery in Santa Fe, 112 Don Gaspar Avenue, 505-992-0800


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