Vivian Maier: Photographic Poetry Swathed in Mystery

Vivian Maier: Living Color
at KP Projects La Brea Gallery, Los Angeles (through December 29)
Reviewed by Genie Davis

Vivian Maier has been called a street photographer, although many of her photographic works are less about capturing the action around her and more about revealing a certain intimacy in her subjects. She was meticulous in her work; unedited and unculled, her images have an amazing range of power and depth. She has been called the nanny photographer, and while it is true that she spent forty years working as a nanny, she spent more time than that perfecting her craft. She has been called a mystery and an enigma, and to some extent, surely, she was that, having hidden her work from view, stored it in storage lockers, and then let those storage units fall into arears. Much speculation has been made as to whether or not Maier wanted her work discovered or cared little if it was lost.

A documentary film about her, created by John Maloof, credited with discovering her posthumously, continues to swirl with and expand from the myth of her life; a recently released book by Pamela Bannos provides a perhaps more insightful commentary about her reclusive lifestyle, her dedication to photographic art, and whether or not she was secretly documenting the world she lived in, or if she was shaping her relationship to that world through her work.

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Location unknown, 1960 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy Maloof Collection and KP PROJECTS gallery, Los Angeles

The mystery about Maier as an artist adds to the attraction, but if as a viewer one can peel that gauzy mythology away, one sees a number of things. First, this was a woman artist working in an era when women without great wealth were not easily recognized. This was a woman who wanted to produce her art — for whatever purpose, in whatever designated style — without bowing to convention, without working to compromise it, make it more commercial, sell it. She preferred to keep her art separate from her means of support, above it, perhaps.

The viewer also sees the superlative picture Maier created: of life in the decades that she depicted it, of people, objects, landscapes, and in each image a deep sense of whimsy and poignancy to her work. She reveals the life she observed, and in so doing, reveals her own role in it: to document, and to create stories.

The current exhibition at KP Projects, Living Color, includes a new collection of these stories; many color images as well as the black and white prints which gallery-goers may be more familiar with. The exhibition coincides with the recent printed release of Maier’s color photographs, The Color Work.

Opening night, hosted by Tim Roth, included an appearance by Maloof, who oversees much of her legacy, and has been releasing and exhibiting Maier works at KP Projects for several years, with more events planned by the pair.

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© Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy Maloof Collection and KP PROJECTS gallery, Los Angeles

Not all the photographs presented in this iteration are in color, but the color photos may be the splashiest draw as the latest “discovery.”

What is striking about her color photographs, whether it is a man hawking multi-colored balloons, men in daffodil yellow shorts, or children at a museum exhibition, is her vivid color sense and the well-defined composition of each piece. She seems drawn to yellows and golds; her arrangements are precise, even painterly. Color seems like a mood in her hands; something that electrifies the viewer with its aliveness. It is not that all of her black and white work is somber, or that all of the color images are full of sunshine and flowers; nor is it the palette that she uses, which in many cases is somewhat muted. It is more of a feeling that her work evokes. Her colors seem visceral and sharp; many of her black and white images — not all — seem more dreamy.

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Location and date unknown © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy Maloof Collection and KP PROJECTS gallery, Los Angeles

The way in which Maier sees her images is everything in her photos. There is a red shoe, as magic as the ruby slippers in the Wizard of Oz, juxtaposed next to a broken leg. A man walks down an exceedingly wet street, burdened with two bags, the street shimmering with silvery light. A woman in a burn sienna cape moves through a crowded train platform, like a bright butterfly slipping past the duller shades worn by her peers. A black and white self-portrait is positioned in the mirrored “window” of a fortune and weight machine. People watch from a street corner, a passing parade perhaps, but it is these viewers, their own parade of humanity, that draws Maier. Children and an elderly woman enjoy a mirrored attraction that suggests one can see and hear one’s own voice. These are all a reflection of sorts, one of wonder, one of awe. Across a body of water, a child stares out at a great city, and he could be viewed as a stand-in for Maier. He is taking it all in. We do not see him, we see what he sees.

Just as she took many self-portraits that showed her reflected in glass or mirrors, or mirrored fragments, so Maier reflected the feelings, the vibe, the sense of motion, and above all the stories of her city. The city was primarily Chicago, although she traveled extensively in her younger days. She shot over 150,000 images, many discovered undeveloped. From the 1950s through the 70s, from a box camera to 35mm, black and white or color, Maier creates a stunning portrait of a changing America. Changing in terms of dress, style, landscape; changing in terms of faces, newspaper headlines. And yet what she also shows is how things have stayed the same. It is above all about the great legacy and rituals of being human. Her images of the city itself also reflect this, because what is a city if not something made by people, inhabited by it, teeming with them. She is a humanist; she is compassionate in her depictions of people, and seemed to be very much drawn to images of immigrants, people of color, of elderly women. . .

To read the rest of Davis’s review, go to Riot Material magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/vivian-maier-photographic-poetry-mystery/

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