University of Kentucky Art Museum
Through July 26
A Review for Under Main
First and foremost, there is the work. The photographs of Vivian Maier on exhibit at the University of Kentucky Art Museum are immediately arresting, thanks to her eye for formal composition. They are compelling, because of the crazy quilt mix of people depicted in the 1950s U.S. metropolis. And they are charming, owing to an arch sense of humor and an abiding affection for women and children. Seeing this small but insightful show leads one to a greater appreciation for the unconventional and ultimately unknowable woman we see peering out at us from deep inside her own obsession.
But the afterimages that linger beyond the viewing are as much about the backstory, or the Vivian Maier Mystery (as a BBC documentary calls it), as they are about the images. If you spend a couple of hours on the internet in Vivian Maier Land, it’s easy to see there’s trouble ahead and trouble behind. Nanny Strangest! cries a Wall Street Journal headline. The Greatest Street Photographer You Never Heard Of, says Mother Jones. Legal Battle Over Vivian Maier’s Work, reports the NY Times. In the six years since her death, there have been two films made about her, and five books of her photographs have been published, all thanks to a few collectors and dealers who found her work in dispersal sales and have been promoting it ever since. There are, of course, lawyers arguing over who should get the proceeds, competing genealogical researchers have identified different French heirs, and late word has it that a long lost brother, Charles, has turned up and been awarded the rights to the photographs by the Cook County (IL) Probate Court, which wants its own cut of the action.
Meanwhile, Vivian Maier’s life has been scrutinized and called into question. Because she made 150,000 negatives over four decades, showing them to no one, stashing them in storage units, only to lose them when she couldn’t pay the rent, she is now assumed to have been “a private, unhappy person” who left us with “the riddle of her sad life” (WSJ). It is reported that she wore men’s clothes and boots, and that some of the kids she nannied nicknamed her “Bird Lady.” Some of them loved her, to the point of taking care of her late in life, and others say she was cruel and abusive and speculated that perhaps she had been abused as a child. One person who knew her says she might have been in the autistic spectrum. The fact that she hoarded newspapers and other items along with her negatives, and that she became more temperamental with age led one writer to surmise that Maier’s behavior was symptomatic of “a haunted, morbid psychology.” But a piece in The New Yorker cautions that neither was she a Mary Poppins, nor a surrogate Mommie Dearest. “To suggest her choices were the result of some as yet uncovered emotional trauma is to assume that her life was lived in reaction to pain.” Poor woman–she didn’t ask for this dissection of her psyche. She has been made into a public figure, without her permission.
Vivian Maier was a spy in the house of love. With her French accent and German camera, she was a kind of foreign correspondent, disguised as an au pair, who amassed a voluminous dossier on urban American life, and then filed it away, her obsession satisfied with the acquisition and collection of images—and not with the dissemination of them. Perhaps she found her joy in seeing the world through the camera and making the exposure. When an image comes into focus on the ground glass, the world is seen anew. To look through a cameral is an adventure, and a form of play. When the shutter is tripped, a photographer feels that anything can happen. Vivian Maier’s twin-lens Rolleiflex was her passport into other peoples’ lives. It gave her the access she craved, but at the same time kept her at some remove—the strategy of a consummate observer.
Among the things she took pleasure in observing were reflections of herself. One of the self-portraits in this exhibit reveals a rare glimpse of her enjoying the chase. In it a worker lifts a mirror out of a truck, seemingly unaware that there is a woman in the mirror taking a picture. For 125th of a second, a smile plays across her face. That’s the woman that three of her former charges spoke of when they wrote this death notice for the Chicago Tribune: Vivian Maier, proud native of France and Chicago resident for 50 years, died peacefully on Monday [April 23, 2009]. Second mother to John, Lane and Matthew. A free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all that knew her. Always ready to give her advice, opinion or a helping hand. Movie critic and photographer extraordinaire. A truly special person who will be sorely missed but whose long and wonderful life we all celebrate and will always remember.
As for the industry that has grown up around her work, it has endowed a Vivian Maier Scholarship to allow emerging female photographers to attend the prestigious School of the Art Institute. And without those collectors and gallerists—in the case of this exhibit, John Maloof and the Daniel Greenberg Gallery–no one would have ever heard of Vivian Maier in the first place. Are we to canonize her and place her in the pantheon of photographic heroines of the 20th century? Lord knows she may have suffered enough. Imagine what she went through when her archive was sold out from under her. But is she to be mentioned in the same breath with Helen Levitt, Margaret Bourke-White, Diane Arbus, Lisette Model, Ruth Orkin, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post-Wolcott, Imogene Cunningham, Bernice Abbott, Laura Gilpin, Evon Streetman, Francesca Woodman, Carrie Mae Weems, Mary Ellen Mark, Linda Connor, Annie Leibovitz, Lorna Simpson, Susan Meiselas, Donna Ferrato, Deborah Luster, Debbie Fleming Caffery and Sally Mann? Perhaps. We have seen only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to prints from Vivian Maier’s thousands of negatives. Hundreds of rolls remain undeveloped. When the legal wrangling is all said and done, we can expect that more of her work will be brought to light.
Other Streets: Photographs from the Collection
Speaking of wanting to see more, the UK Art Museum has put up an excellent selection of street photography from its collection to help place Maier’s work in a broader context. As you leave the thoughtfully-sequenced Maier exhibit, take a right and you will find prints by Magnum great Bruce Davidson. Take a second right down the next hallway and you’ll see images by Lexington Camera Club members Van Deren Coke, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Robert C. May—early documentary work from the 1950s. Several of Garry Winogrand’s “Women Are Beautiful” photographs are on the opposite wall.
Together, the two exhibits remind us of the important role the UK Art Museum has played in the regional photographic community, especially over the past 18 years, since Bob May’s bequest begat the excellent lecture series that bears his name, and funds were earmarked for exhibits and the purchase of prints. The museum has expanded its collection and made photography a point of emphasis in its programming. We can thank Bob, and the museum staff for that.