Vivian Maier's is a fascinating story -- the "nanny photographer" who took hundreds of thousands of photographs from the 1950s-'70s, many of them going undeveloped until discovered in an Indiana storage auction in 2007. It's romantic stuff that's been eaten up by press the world over, but the story wouldn't be nearly as fascinating or worth repeating if the work itself weren't so good.
Since that fateful discovery five years ago, Maier's work has inspired multiple exhibitions, as well as a photography book out next month and a documentary due next spring that attempt to discern who this little-known woman was. The works have largely been shown in Chicago, where Maier lived and worked as a nanny and took many of her 120,000 photos. But lucky for us, there are currently 30 on display at Catherine Couturier Gallery (formerly John Cleary Gallery) from Chicago art collector Jeffrey Goldstein's collection -- one of two main collections of Maier's work and which is the basis for the forthcoming book, titled Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows.
The strictly black-and-white photographs have been printed based on the standards and aesthetics of when Maier was shooting in the 1950s and '60s, making for beautifully high-contrast photos with rich shadows. Couturier combed through what photographs have been printed so far (and still counting) and selected those for display. The works are arranged by self-portraits, small prints Maier, who passed away in 2009 at the age of 83, saw published in her lifetime, and what can only be described as everything else -- photos that document the everyday, capturing intimate, suspenseful, funny, or quiet moments -- whatever caught Maier's masterful eye.
There are young lovers kissing on a Coney Island beach, an elderly couple bracing themselves against a strong wind, a military line next to bystanders during the 1968 National Democratic Convention. The photos have fairly straight-forward names (Couple Kissing at Beach, Couple in Wind, Military Line, Civilians) because they are straight-forward photos. And that's the key to their charm. Maier, though often unceremoniously labeled as an "amateur," was a street photographer and documentarian of the best sort. She captured unstaged moments, disappearing into the scenery so her subjects could act naturally.
That Maier never got to experience her own fame may be viewed as heartbreaking, though you get the sense that she wouldn't have cared for it anyway. Why she let her life's work sit collecting dust in a storage unit in the first place, we may never know. And while this story raises questions about the ethics of printing someone's work without her consent -- and profiting off of it -- I can't help but feel relieved that these images, these humanist historical records, haven't been lost to the shadows.
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"Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows" at Catherine Couturier Gallery, 2635 Colquitt Street, now through October 13. For more information, call (713) 524-5070 or visit http://www.catherinecouturier.com.