Uncanny Nanny: The Intrigue of Vivian Maier

Six years after their public introduction, Vivian Maier’s photographs still exude mystery and prompt intrigue. Working as a nanny in Chicago during the fifties and sixties, Maier documented her surroundings — and often herself — but ironically we know little about her life. Vivian Maier: On the Street at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky presents a monographic exhibition of thirty black and white photographs, including abstract self portraits and intimate glimpses into the lives of both Chicago’s working class and elite aristocrats.The scope of the exhibition provides a perspective of Maier’s surroundings, while at the same time offering viewers a deeper connection with the photographer and her Rolleiflex camera.

However socially and aesthetically infatuating, the legal underpinnings of Maier’s photographs remain overarching. In 2007, two years before her death, her negatives were auctioned off along with the rest of the contents of her storage unit as the result of nonpayment. Since then, her work has been reproduced, edited, and resold to private galleries and collectors. An onslaught of intellectual property debates and ethical questions still permeate Chicago courtrooms. In sum, Maier’s oeuvre has been posthumously constructed and aggrandized by those with a market share in her life and work.

While this aspect of Maier’s entrance into the mainstream is a basis for contention (but not entirely unique — this happens all too frequently in the art world), I think there is more at play in our vehement attraction to her photographs than just market controversy. Perhaps this is why On The Street resists a dialogue about ethics and legalities. Although the entrance wall text states that the selected photographs are pulled from the John Maloof Collection (Maloof is just one of the original purchasers of Maier’s defunct storage unit), no details are provided about the legalities of his purchase. Instead, the viewer is presented with another concern: the entrance of unknown “artists of consequence” into the canon of art history.

The works chosen for display for On the Street provide viewers with a multi-faceted view of city life through the lens of Maier’s camera. Each image seems at once familiar and uncanny — we can recognize the ebb and flow of city life, but only though Maier’s abstract angles and intense shadows. While some of Maier’s subjects are aware of their subjectiveness, others are oblivious — they are presented as anonymous, fragmented bodies. Ubiquitous shadows seem to be subjects themselves: Maier frequently makes them the focus of her self portraits. Indeed, there is something dream-like about Maier’s use of light and line, shadow and shape — her Surrealist predecessors applied many of the same techniques to their own photography.

Although the exhibition of thirty photographs seems small in comparison to the number of negatives available from the Maloof Collection, the time required to absorb Maier’s work is proportionate. Each photograph is remarkably detailed — and one journey through On the Street is not enough to fully immerse oneself in Maier’s world. The exhibition is comprised of single images and groupings of two and four photographs: children, city streets, women, transportation, and leisure, to name a few. Contextualizing these selected photographs provides a comprehensive survey of her subject matter, allowing viewers to connect her daily activities with the people and places she chose to capture on film.

On the Street is located in the back corner of the museum, which seems an odd fit for Maier’s work — the exhibition almost suffocates in its compact space. The intensity of Maier’s photography needs a precise “breathability,” something the back gallery ultimately lacks. Perhaps in attempt to mediate the small space, each photograph is surrounded with a large white mat and delicate silver frame. While this gesture helps aerate the body of work, the lack of space remains a dominant issue.

An observer of the everyday, Maier was able to capture the humanism and humor of daily life. This is evident through On the Street, which treats her work as both a time capsule and an autobiography. It succeeds by presenting her photographs as documents of a time passed, but also through examining the photographer’s importance and artistic resonance. While viewers are asked to question Maier’s undoubtable skill in relation to formally trained photographers of her time, I wish to offer a thematic addendum: should we ignore the fact she may not have wanted her life and work displayed publicly? Who truly owns Maier’s work — and should we be content with others profiting from her anonymity?

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