JTF (just the facts): A total of 56 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung in the main gallery space and the book alcove. 31 of the prints (shown in the main space) are posthumous/modern gelatin silver prints, each sized 12×12, in editions of 15. The other 25 prints (shown in the book alcove) are lifetime gelatin silver prints, ranging in size from 4×3 to 11×14. All of the images were taken in the 1950s and 1960s. A monograph of this body of work was published by powerHouse Books in 2011 (here). (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: Whatever we might think about the rediscovery of the 1950s street photographs of Vivian Maier, it’s impossible to conclude that the press coverage has been anything but breathless and ubiquitous; if you have even the slightest interest in photography, you can’t have missed this story in the past year or two. Since every feature article follows the same exact path (the nanny, the storage locker, the 100,000 negatives, the auction, etc.), I’m going to assume this thin background is by now pretty well common knowledge.
Photography is likely the only mainstream artistic medium where we continue to unearth potentially major talents who have been heretofore completely overlooked or lost, so Maier’s emergence is by no means an isolated case. In recent years, similar stories have played out with the work of Charles Jones and Mike Disfarmer to name just two of many. I think the hard thing about such rediscoveries is that it is very difficult to place these photographers back into their original historical context, since no one of that era saw the work or was influenced by it, nor do we have any concrete information about what shows the artist saw, what people he/she met or admired, or what books were on his/her shelves; the whole artistic narrative is disconnected. Until this data is uncovered by diligent scholarship and historical study (if ever), all we can really do is look at the pictures and try to draw our own narrowly drawn hypothetical conclusions about what might have been. The other challenge with such a project, especially when the work is found as an undifferentiated whole, is that we really have no sense of Maier as an editor of her own art. We don’t know which pictures she thought were her best, which ones she thought were failures, and which ones she thought were interesting but not necessarily representative of what she was trying to accomplish. In this small show, there are photographs reminiscent of Friedlander, Frank, Model, Callahan, Winogrand, Levinstein, Weegee, and even Arbus. Seeing such a gathering, one might plausibly conclude that she was a photographer still searching for her own style, perhaps trying on other ways of working in the process of looking for her own, borrowing here and there and incorporating pieces she found useful. Absent verifiable connections or a complete chronology, it’s impossible to say which came first, or which echo was purposeful, random, or otherwise uniquely original.
So it is fair to say that I came to this show with a fair amount of inherent skepticism, especially given the hype. What is evident however is that Vivian Maier was undeniably talented. Her street photographs have a sense of formal control that is too consistent to be a coincidence; there is very little motion or chance in these pictures. She had an eye for small urban gestures: the turn of head on the street, the resting of a sleeping head on the bus, the clasp of hands across a lunch table, or the matching hats and newspapers on the train. She also had a fondness for the eccentric details in people: a crop of bushy white hair under a hat, the scowling veiled faces of society women in furs, the elastic bands exploding out of a conductor’s back pockets, the watch chain of a suited man sleeping in a car, or the blurry glamour of a puffy white dress in the night. There is a strong undercurrent of crisp storytelling here, even with her self-portraits, which capture her modest figure with deadpan rigor, often reflected in shop windows or store mirrors.
This show felt to me like a broad introductory edit, a little of everything, and I look forward to tighter slices of her work as the overall view of her photography becomes clearer. It’s too early to say definitively where Maier fits or to understand how reinserting her into the march of 1950s photography might alter the agreed-upon progression, but it’s safe to declare that her photographs are truly exciting and well-crafted. Much more work is clearly needed to process her voluminous output and synthesize it down into those images that represent a unique, innovative contribution to the history of the medium. That work is ongoing, so I expect this will be just the first of many Vivian Maier shows to come, bit by bit (re)defining her legacy.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows. The posthumous prints start at $1800 and rise up through $2600 and $3500 to $5000. The lifetime prints range from $4750 to $8250, with a few NFS or already sold. Maier’s work has not yet reached the secondary markets, so gallery retail is likely the only option for interested collectors at this point.