Death and Discovery: The Work of Vivian Maier


Men Must Change or Die

This is bit out of our time period, but if you bear with me for a few paragraphs, I think you will find it relevant to our study of how the effects of American economics are represented culturally through visual form.

The photographs on this blog are from one, Vivian Maier, a nanny who spent most of her free time chronicling the streets of Chicago.  They span from the 1950s to the 1960s, and are mainly confined to cityscapes of the Windy City, although several prints from Ms Maier’s travels are included in the collection.  What is interesting about her work is its pressing concern in depicting the reality of daily life against the certitudes of financial hardship.  There is such inherent humanity and dignity about her subjects, that even the bleakest of environs is helpless to erase the voiceless captions.  “I’m here.”  “I’m real.”  “I live this every day.”

What is also fascinating is that her work was discovered posthumously.  She never sought to publish these photographs, or even share them with others during her lifetime.  They were discovered, accidentally, in 2007 by a local historian who bought them at an estate sale after Maier was no longer able to pay rent on her storage locker.  In a way, it’s as if she, in solidarity with her subjects, wished to live their struggles in the truest form she could imagine. . .anonymously, compassionately.

Taken with a Rolleiflex TLR, Maier’s legacy of almost 100,000 negatives is a painful reminder that economic nomenclature is not a passing fashion for some.  Shadowed in the post-war boom and blossom of sunny suburbia, these are the seedlings that the Great Depression left behind.  As highways expanded and carried the fleeing masses out from the center, these oft-reminisced “years of prosperity” nurtured an urban slide into the decaying 70s and 80s, replete with crime, corruption, crack-cocaine. . .

As I said in my previous post about the FSA and the Office of War Information, this is not the kind of work you can expect to achieve through digital means.  The primary function of photography is to cut the world into little square-sized slices, and then to see what they say when held up against the whole.  To be an effective agent of representation, it is essential that you manipulate the subject of your lens as little as possible, because you are already one generation removed, by very presence of the camera itself.  Reviewing, editing, and deleting disrupt the mental process of observation that is critical for an activity like street photography.  Mindlessly snapping away with the hope that one shot out of a million will catch that single thing you hope is true?  Equally ineffective.

When you look at Ms. Maier’s work, you know it is not the output of a mechanical process.  It, like all important art, is the consequence of critical thought.

That’s not to say there is no place for digital photography in the world of art.  But sometimes it is not about the perfection of a certain projection that moves us to consider a point of view.  It is the imperfect imprint of an image’s ability to reflect the truth about what surrounds us that does this.

It is the small soiling and tears about the edges that we train our naked eye not to see while we make our daily rounds. . .until someone else shows us where to look.

Thank you for that gift, Ms Maier.

One Comment to “Death and Discovery: The Work of Vivian Maier”

  1. Wonderfully written, power post.

    “Shadowed in the post-war boom and blossom of sunny suburbia, these are the seedlings that the Great Depression left behind. As highways expanded and carried the fleeing masses out from the center, these oft-reminisced “years of prosperity” nurtured an urban slide into the decaying 70s and 80s…” Ms. Maier’s photos so well captured in your prose.

    “When you look at Ms. Maier’s work, you know it is not the output of a mechanical process. It, like all important art, is the consequence of critical thought.”

    Excellent. Thanks.

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