Vivian Maier: Self Portrait @Howard Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A pair of exhibitions. The larger one, which wraps around four walls of the main gallery, is entitled Self-Portrait and consists of 41 black and white and color photographs: 29 gelatin silver prints (framed in black and matted) and 12 chromogenic prints made from Ektachrome transparencies (framed in white and matted). Many of the prints are marked N.D., but those with dates were taken between 1953-1979. The smaller exhibition, which occupies three walls in an East room, is entitled Unpublished and consists of 7 gelatin silver prints taken between 1953-1963. All photographs are 20 x 16 inches, are available in editions of 15, and were printed by Steve Riskin in 2013. A monograph of Maier’s self portraiture was recently published by powerHouse Books (here). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Stories about artists who spend their careers outside the network of commercial and critical legitimization, and only after death find acclaim, are deeply satisfying. Purity of motives and steely faith in oneself are qualities as admirable as they are rare. Anyone suffering in basement obscurity gains courage from these examples, too, as they offer hope for an after-life as historically rewarding as Emily Dickinson’s or Vincent Van Gogh’s.

The annals of photography are dotted with professionals and amateurs who failed to receive proper respect in their lifetimes. Timothy O’Sullivan was a forgotten man until Ansel Adams rediscovered his desert landscapes in the 1930s and alerted Beaumont Newhall. Mike Disfarmer was mocked in Heber Springs, Arkansas as the town lunatic when he was alive, a step up from being utterly insignificant beyond its borders. The photographs of plants and vegetables by the English gardener Charles Jones were found in a suitcase at a Bermondsey antiques market in 1981, twenty-two years after he had passed away at the age of ninety-two.

Vivian Maier, the nanny who photographed Chicago on her days off, is the latest artist to play this fulfilling role in the popular mind. Her artistic reputation has gone from zero to warp speed in the last four years. Her secret life and posthumous career have been worthy of features broadcast on network news. of worldwide exhibitions, books, and this year a documentary film. Not until 2007, when realtor and historian John Maloof bought a locker full of her negatives at auction, was there any clue that this semi-destitute, eccentric, proud, opinionated, and independent single woman had produced, before her death in 2009, between 100,000-150,000 negatives, more than 3,000 prints, 700 rolls of undeveloped color film, and a collection of 8 mm and 16 mm movies.

This exhibition of her self-portraits–mostly from the 1950s and the 1970s and all done with a square-format Rolleiflex– confirms that the hoopla is justified. Both in their precocity and their formal reach, they are exceptional photographs. Any fool can click a shutter thousands of times and leave behind mountains of negatives in cold storage; Maier viewed photography as an art and practiced it with flair and determination for more than 50 years.

Portraits of herself can roughly be divided into two categories: those she made from shards of light off reflected surfaces (not only mirrors on walls, but also shop windows, a chrome hubcap, and a polished dome ashtray) and those she made by allowing the seepage of her own shadow into the frame. In both cases, she is invariably unsmiling, dressed in plain dresses or men’s clothes, often with a floppy hat. These are not selfies made for cracking up her close friends–not that she seemed to have had any. Instead, the invigorating wit of her pictures comes from the many ways Maier finds to incorporate pieces of the real world around her invasive or barely visible body. (Although there are no nudes here and the mood is anything but nakedly confessional–these are among the most chaste self-portraits in 20th century photography–they reveal Maier as a woman who liked to be fully buttoned up and sleeved in any climate.)

The constant awareness of herself as an outsider wherever she goes, how she doesn’t quite fit into New York, Florida, or Chicago scenes, is touching and might be unbearably sad were she not so inventive.  Her self-portraits in bare rooms where mirrors mirror mirrors–Maier at her most Bauhaus–interest me the least. When she photographs herself reflected in a cigarette machine, however, Maier seems less curious about her own visage than about the corporate milieu of 1957 America, whereby men and women were enticed to gaze at themselves while purchasing a lifestyle product. She is the corporeal subject of her self-portraits almost by default. What intrigues her is the disruptive surprise created by her ghostly presence –and the holes it leaves–in the frame.Her flat black shadow, when imprinted on the wall of a brick building as she stood on a New York subway platform in 1955 or against a Chicago fence in 1978, cloaks her identity–and her sex. And that’s just fine with this very private person.

In reviewing hundreds of her pictures, Maloof has identified 1952 as a key transition in Maier’s development. That was the year when she returned from England to her native New York and bought a Rolleiflex. He believes that Lisette Model, an instructor at the New School at that time, may have shaped this new direction. That is one avenue for research. Other promising byways, suggested by this show, would be the many photographers who taught or were exhibited in Chicago in the late 1950s and into the 70s. Maier had moved there in 1956 to help raise three boys for a family that lived on the wealthy North Shore.

She must have known the work of Harry Callahan. A Chicago self-portrait here of Maier as a looming shadow in a hat, with a tiny lighted rectangle at the bottom, has no date. But it bears unmistakable similarities to several double-exposure portraits Callahan made of his wife Eleanor in the 1940s and ‘50s. (He was a teacher at the Institute of Design in Chicago until 1961.) Maier would have known Callahan’s work from either magazines or in exhibitions mounted at the Art Institute of Chicago by Hugh Edwards. The pioneering curator supported numerous Chicago modernist photographers, including Kenneth Josephson and Ray Metzker. Edwards also offered Robert Frank his first solo show in the U.S. They were Maier’s contemporaries and her work has affinities with many of them.

In some cases, though, she anticipated pictorial tricks before her better-known male colleagues. I am not the only one struck by the resemblance of her 1954 shadow self-portrait on a beach, the prehistoric carapace of a horseshoe crab situated where her heart should be, to a 1983 Lee Friedlander self-portrait made in the desert of Canyon de Chelly. Someone at Greenberg has noted the kinship, too, and hung the Friedlander picture in an adjacent show of self-portraits by other photographers. It would be helpful to know what books and magazines this pack-rat kept in her overstuffed rooms–Friedlander’s first self-portrait book appeared in 1967–over the decades.

Maloof and the collector Jeff Goldstein have performed the same service for Maier that Peter Miller did for Disfarmer in the 1970s: they rescued remarkable work from oblivion and made new prints from negatives when vintage prints were unknown or unusable. One of the many questions that arises with Maier is whether, as with Disfarmer, vintage prints will now appear to take advantage of her emergent fame, or whether those older prints are so clearly inferior to these present modern prints that what we’re seeing at Greenberg is as good as it is likely to get.

For a person so curious about photographing herself in the world, Maier seemed not at all curious about judging her performance in the marketplace. The low ratio of negatives to surviving prints, and the total absence of contact sheets, may reflect the taxing cost of printing on a domestic worker’s salary. By 1960  she had lost access to her own darkroom and had stopped processing her own film.

Maier was a Socialist and a Feminist and she may not have wanted to wrestle for what little money there was to be had from the sale of photographs in an arena dominated by a lot of aggressive younger men. Or she may have been such a perfectionist that after seeing the haphazard hits and misses in a darkroom she preferred to imagine rather than judge her efforts. If you can’t be sure what you’ve done, you can continue to be safely ignorant about whether or not it’s any good.

It’s a debatable question, as it is with Garry Winogrand’s late undeveloped work, whether by never looking at prints of her negatives Maier didn’t abrogate one of the fundamental tasks of being an artist: self-editing and feedback. In Maier’s case, what she kept hidden from public view was extraordinary. That her photographs might have seemed less so had she actually exhibited them in the competitive atmosphere of the 1960s and ‘70s shouldn’t lessen their value. The miraculous discovery of buried treasure certainly makes for a better story, but it also allow us to see her as her own person.

Ever since Disfarmer was first heralded in the pages of Modern Photography in 1976 by Julia Scully and Peter Miller, the American art world has wondered if the work of another ornery genius was lying hidden somewhere in plain sight. Indications are that Vivian Maier is ready to be that artist.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price from $2200 to $3900. Since Maier’s work has recently been rediscovered, it is not surprising that her prints have not yet reached the secondary markets with any regularity. As such, gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Vivian Maier, Howard Greenberg Gallery, powerHouse Books

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Excellent article

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