Book Review: Vivian Maier Street Photographer

April 13, 2013 · Print This Article

We are in the midst of a Vivian Maier moment. She has concurrent shows around the world. Three lovely coffee table books, one a year since 2011. There’s a forthcoming documentary out about her, Finding Vivian Maier. Then there’s the Chicago History Museum lecture coming up on April 16 called “The Reinvention of Vivian Maier.” And all of this since her death, or more rightly, because of her death.

Since I first saw the exhibit Finding Vivian Maier at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2011, I have had mixed feelings about Maier’s work. It is undoubtedly compelling. The images are beautiful and the photographer so clearly loves city life. I pretty much never miss a street photography show. Last year’s Film and Photo in New York with Helen Levitt and Robert FCoverrank among others, as well as Dawoud Bey’s Harlem USA, both at The Art Institute of Chicago, were riveting examples of urban photography. But they were different from Finding Vivian Maier. These photographers created work specifically for exhibition. They not only consented to their work being exhibited, they also had a say in the body of work from which the curators had to select. Even if this say came only in the form of editing out images the individual artists didn’t prefer. Vivian Maier didn’t have this opportunity. Her oeuvre of over 100,000 negatives I am assuming are relatively unedited by her, and they are certainly not edited for exhibition.

Vivian Maier Street Photographer is beautiful. Glossy, nice-sized pages that encourage getting lost in the images. Although all of the images contained are of public space, there is an intimacy to Maier’s work that makes me want to curl up on the sofa alone and spend some time with them. This irony of looking at these public images in private does not seem to be lost on the book. While some images are shown on opposing pages, others are allowed a blank page to give the reader time and space to consider the photo.

The book is organized roughly into three sections. The first are the city photos everyone loves—people, buildings, urbanity. Toward the end, there is a cluster of photos of animals dead in the street. These are juxtaposed against images of people sleeping, passed out, dirty children. It is impossible not to read this as “Oh look how these dead city animals resemble our tossed aside urban people.” It is here that the book becomes interesting in another way. I couldn’t help but wonder if Maier would have edited the book in this fashion. There are no titles to images. No dates. This is not the fault of the editor and rescuer of Maier’s work, John Maloof. I spent a lot of time on his website and it is clear that while some of her images are dated, most are not. How does one curate over 100,00 photos? With so much to chose from, is it even possible to allow the work to tell it’s own story? And what story would that be? The story Maier wanted to tell with her photographs? The story of Vivian Maier? Maybe it’s the story of John Maloof, whose life is now inextricably bound to hers.

After the Acknowledgments, there are more photos, Maier’s self-portraits. These are moving and unsettling. All I could think about was what this impossibly private person might think of all this. Looking at her pictures of other people seemed fine, but looking at pictures of Maier herself felt prurient and unseemly. But that is part of what the world loves about Vivian Maier, she is the fantasy of the undiscovered artist. The person who made work just for herself and then after her death is discovered to be a genius. It’s like every undergraduate art student’s fantasy come true.

This is a lovely book to spend time with and is more thought provoking than I had expected. I highly recommend it.

Vivian Maier Street Photographer, edited by John Maloof

Hardcover, 144 pages

Powerhouse Books, $39.95




Friday Clip Show

April 3, 2009 · Print This Article

Are re-blogged links the blogger’s version of the sitcom flashback episode? Uh, maybe, but in any case, here’s a partial and purely subjective roundup of the past week in art, culture, etc. in Chicago and beyond, via a whole mess o’ handy links, of course….

*Artists selected for the 53rd Annual Venice Biennale have been announced; find the list here.

*New City art editor Jason Foumberg has a nice recap along with some thoughtful analysis of last week’s “The Invisible Artist: Creators from Chicago’s Southside” panel discussion at the School of the Art Institute. UPDATE 4/4: There is some very interesting, enlightening, and pretty damn sharp back-and-forth going on in the comments section of this article by panel participants and others who strongly disagree with (or have misunderstood) Foumberg’s assessment of the panel and the issues it addressed.

*The mass firings of adjunct fine art faculty at Parsons The New School for Design: blogger Hrag Vartanian’s coverage has been some of the most thorough thus far. Check out his posts here, here and here as a start.

*Time Out Chicago writer Lauren Weinberg has a piece this week on the ways in which Musuems in Chicago and elsewhere are using social media.

*Big yawn: on the Twitter front, an update on @platea’s Twitter happening I blogged about a few weeks ago. UPDATE 4/4: NewCity reported on what happened during the Twitter Island project discussed in that same blog post, here.

*A huge Pose slideshow available on The World’s Best Ever.

*Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes provides an excellent, two-part summary of a rare Robert Frank public talk this week with National Gallery of Art curator Sarah Greenough; part one and two.

*Via C-Monster: The Architecture of the Drug Trade. A fascinating look at  the landscape of weed and the architecture of the grow house. Especially loved the comparison of the latter to Max’s bedroom in Where the Wild Things Are.

*Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City writes for The L Magazine on why Jenny Holzer is not the patron saint of Twitter in her review of Holzer’s Protect Protect Project, which originated at the MCA and is now at The Whitney.

*Via ArchitectureChicago: iTunes offering free download of the first movement of John Cage’s 4’33″.

* Get your art on at Chicago Artist’s Resource (CAR)’s Creative Chicago Expo tomorrow (Saturday) from 10-4. Workshops and Consult-a-thons galore for individuals and arts organizations.

*And finally, the hermeneutics of “pin diplomacy”: via Artnet Magazine, Madeleine Albright’s pin collection to be shown at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York.  Pins weren’t mere jewelry for Albright, they added a subtle layer to her diplomatic efforts.  She wore a bee pin when talks were getting pointed, a balloon pin when she felt hopeful, and a snake pin after Sadaam Hussein’s people called her a serpent. I’m so there!