Thursday, 13 January 2011

A personal response to the Vivian Maier photo exhibit by Jim Wright

A personal response to the Vivian Maier photo exhibit
Chicago Cultural Center
January 8 – April 3, 2011
By Jim Wright

“We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel – you get on, you go to the end, and someone else has the same opportunity to go to the end, and so on, and somebody else takes their place. There’s nothing new under the sun.”
Thus Vivian Maier, a recently discovered photographer of the mid to late twentieth century, expressed a philosophy of modesty that perhaps influenced her to make serious and fine photographs and store them in boxes rather than share them with the world. It was only after her death that John Maloof, a young real estate agent, author and fan of flea markets and estate sales, purchased a box containing thousands of negatives. Maloof recognized the quality of the photography and took on the full-time job of editing and cataloging it.

A selection of Maier’s work is currently on display at the Chicago Cultural Center. Some of those images and other photos can be seen at and

While viewing the Cultural Center exhibit I sensed that I was looking at the work of someone inspired by, and in the company of, such twentieth-century masters as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Henri-Cartier-Bresson, and Paul Strand, with just an occasional dash of Diane Arbus.
The images suggest a deep compassion for poor and middle-class people, and especially for children. Youngsters are shown at play, under stress, and engaging the camera (and viewer) with a direct, guileless stare. An aging man is asleep on a beach, stretched out in a position of great vulnerability. Another man, perhaps homeless, sits curled on a sidewalk, his face tucked out of sight. Two young girls stand in a store doorway, one shy and retiring and the other forward and curious.

Maier’s obviously wealthy subjects do not seem to fare as well before her camera. In two photos, rich women glare at the camera with apparent disapproval, perhaps of the photographer, perhaps of everything. In another, a well-dressed man sneers as two men help a man on crutches through a doorway.

In addition to the photos of people, the exhibit has a few scenes featuring architecture in light and shadow. But the overall impression is that the photographer was fascinated by people, and probably loved them – especially the less privileged. But we’re left with the mystery: why didn’t she share her work during her lifetime?

Whoever that person is, getting onto the wheel of life in Vivian Maier’s place, he/she will have some big shoes to fill.