A reclusive street photographer comes into focus
Exhibition and lectures unlock the mysteries in the life and work of Vivian Maier
In 2007, the contents of a seemingly unremarkable group of storage lockers came up for auction in Chicago.
Yet along with the usual newspaper clippings and tchotchkes — and to the surprise of the few who knew the renter, Vivian Maier, a guarded, quirky nanny — the lockers also contained the negatives for tens of thousands of photographs, images of poignant street scenes and striking self-portraits.
Maier, it soon became clear, was an avid, accomplished photographer. By the time she died in 2009 at age 83, she had shot more than 150,000 negatives. Few were printed during her lifetime.
Since the discovery of the negatives, Maier has received critical and popular acclaim, and prints of her photography have been exhibited around the world, though never in Boston. Beginning Oct. 6, that will change. The Women’s Studies Research Center (WSRC) will open “Vivian Maier: A Woman’s Lens,” in the Kniznick Gallery. The exhibition will remain on view through Dec. 18.
“There are lots of questions about why she never printed” or made her work known, says Michele L’Heureux, WSRC curator and director of the arts. “And how do you make editorial choices for her work? She may not have printed these photos this way. Do we even have a right to see this?”
These and other issues will be explored in several events held in conjunction with the exhibition, including a slide lecture on Oct. 15 by photographer and exhibition co-curator Karin Rosenthal. “Unearthed Treasures: The Street Photography of Vivian Maier” will delve into the little-known life and work of the very private artist.
“If it’s a question of seeing the work or not seeing the work, I’d so much rather see the work,” Rosenthal says, noting other famous photographers who didn’t print their own work, including Henri Cartier-Bresson. “It’s important to realize it is a wonderful contribution to the world of photography, but it’s also something of a hybrid at this point. She made the negative. It’s her work. But she didn’t get to determine the print.”
Though Maier was born in New York City, she also spent some of her childhood in France, where she is thought to have produced her earliest work. When she returned to the U.S. in the early 1950s, she began shooting urban street scenes in New York and then Chicago, where she became a nanny to three young boys. She continued shooting into the 1990s.
“The hardest thing for a photographer to understand is to be as passionate as she was and not to show the work to anyone,” says Rosenthal, who first learned of Maier’s photos through a 10-minute video clip shown by a Chicago television station in 2010. “I was struck by how strong her photographs were and the amazing story that they came so close to never being seen.”
Rosenthal has worked since then to bring the exhibition to Brandeis, realizing what a perfect fit it would be for the WSRC.
As a photographer, Maier often took an unobtrusive position that allowed her intimate access. “It let her witness and capture these little moments of two people interacting,” L’Heureux says. Maier was also an outspoken liberal and self-proclaimed feminist, whose photos often focused on children and those on the periphery of society.
Although traces of influence by photographers Helen Levitt, Lisette Model and Berenice Abbott can be seen in Maier’s work, she was, Rosenthal says, a great original.
“When so little is known about the photographer, it’s incredible to look at a photograph and see how much you can understand about the way the photographer was thinking,” Rosenthal says. “She reveals herself a great deal — what are her values, what’s important to her, what isn’t important to her. She’s making a lot of statements in these pictures about what’s important in life.”
Pamela Bannos, an art theory and practice scholar at Northwestern University, will give a slide lecture titled “Vivian Maier’s Fractured Archive: A Woman’s Story,” on Oct. 16 at 6:30 p.m.
And on Nov. 7 at 7:30 p.m., there’ll be a panel discussion, “Turning the Wheel: The Emergence of Women Artists,” moderated by Parrish Dobson and featuring Kristen Gresh of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Laura Prieto of Simmons College; and Francine Weiss of Boston’s Photographic Resource Center.