Another piece of happenstance during my vacation (see Bruce Davidson here) was that an exhibition of 90 Vivian Maier prints was showing in Barcelona at Fundació Catala. The exhibition was described on the gallery’s website (repeated in full here least it should be taken down in future):
This exhibition brings together more than 80 photographs, most of them unpublished, of this American photographer who has managed to captivate the world after the chance discovery of her files, shortly before her death. In 2007, a young researcher in the history of Chicago, John Maloof, bought at a small neighbourhood auction some abandoned belongings of a totally unknown elderly woman named Vivian Maier. What no one could imagine was that her wardrobe harboured a huge photographic work: more than 120,000 negatives, home movies and sound recordings that would change the history of photography.
The exhibition “Vivian Maier. In Her Own Hands”, produced by diChroma Photography and curated by Anne Morin, brings together photographs in both black and white and colour, most of whom were recently revealed by the Maloof archive, showing street scenes from New York and Chicago over the years 1950 to 1980. The photographic language that Maier uses is its own visual experience based on a discrete and silent observation of the world around her. His (sic) scenes spontaneously capture the peculiarities of the “urban America” in the second half of the twentieth century with a great sense of composition, light and environment, showing a great ability to communicate both humour and tragedy. Vivian Maier’s work has already been inscribed in the history of twentieth-century photography, next to big names from the called Street Photography, as Helen Levitt, William Klein and Garry Winogrand. Vivian Maier (1926 – 2009) Born in New York to a French mother and an Austro-Hungarian father, worked as a nanny for forty years. On his (sic) days off Maier was dedicated to making photographs that will jealously hid to the eyes of others. Her life is a mystery. It is said to have died in abject poverty living on the streets for some time, until the children who had looked after in the late 1950s bought an apartment and paid her bills until the day of her death in 2009.
Photography was allowed in the gallery and attached is a pdf of some sample images and information panels – see here.
I was already familiar with Maier’s work through the John Maloof and Charlie Siskel documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, the BBC’s Imagine documentary, Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?, and a photo book gifted to me, Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, also by Maloof. The mystery of her life and work adds an additional, unusual context to her photos.
In this post, I focus only on my observations from the exhibition.
- Maier experimented with self-portraiture, looking for interesting reflections in different objects; this work is striking in the simplicity of the approach available to Maier and effectiveness of the images, some including imaginative over-lays of other people or objects. Maier’s intention when making these images will probably never be known – were they studies in reflections, aimed at honing observational and technical aspects of her work, or was it interest in her own image (that she never printed)?
- The tonality of the prints (mostly black and white on matt) was notably higher quality than that in the printed books of her work. This would be expected to some extent, but the difference seemed more significant than that I’ve noticed with other photographers’ work. This is an important lesson in managing the context of the presentation of work and what can happen when out of the photographer’s hands.
- As the photographs were not edited by the photographer, we have no understanding of her intention; particularly whether or not she envisaged them in series or as individual images. I find exhibitions of images arranged around themes, or in series more significant and accomplished than stand-alone images. Having visited a retrospective of Bruce Davidson’s work the day before (see here), I missed this aspect from the exhibition.
Overall, I enjoy Maier’s work because of the proximity to her subjects – there is a sense of being taken back to the moment in which the photo was made and being up-close to personalities from another time. There is an intimacy to her work that I feel is important to make this type of photography worthwhile; close, often with wide-angle perspective of narrative; it otherwise becomes a shot of a stranger walking down a street that anyone with a camera could take.
Fundació Foto Colectania [website]. Vivian Maier. In Her Own Hands. Available from: http://www.colectania.es/index.php?i=3&p=2 [accessed 28.8.16]
Vivian Maier [website]. Available from: http://www.vivianmaier.com [accessed 28.8.16]