The story of Vivian Maier (1926-2009) is probably many writers’ dream. Photos of an unknown photographer are found. She turns out to be an eccentric person, someone living in her own world with no friends or contact with her family. No one knows who she really is, as she changes names all the time. Her French accent is questioned to be true or not. While trying to find her, she dies anonymously. It is no surprise that the story of Maier generates lots of publicity and it won’t hurt selling her prints either. Just as it will be good for the amount of visitors to Foam Amsterdam, which shows the work of Maier from November 7th. With all the attention Maier gets, you start to wonder what is more interesting: her life or her work.
Maiers photos are inseparable of her life, as is the case with many photographers. The Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken always said that his pictures showed who he was. But, Maiers life is reconstructed. We actually don’t know anything about her and what she wanted to show with her photographs. What we do know is that she photographed a lot, over 150.000 negatives are collected, found per chance. Maier kept everything, nothing was thrown away. At the same time no one was allowed to see her collection and entering her room was strictly forbidden. Until in 2007 John Maloof was searching for photos to illustrate a history book. He buys a box with negatives and starts to revisit the life of Maier who turns out to be a nanny, not a professional photographer. Maloof tries to get musea interested in her work, but initially fails. Then the media picks up the story of Maier and all the sudden Maier is a famous photographer. The world is at her feet.
And now her work is shown at an exhibition in Foam. Curator Claudia Küssel is rightly pleased. Foam and Maier fit together and of course her photographs are also a crowd pleaser. But the more is told about Maier and the more mysterious she seems to be, the more I’m wondering if things are not too good to be true. It’s such a perfect classic film story I can hardly believe it. At the same time, so much emphasis has been laid on Maier herself that her photography seems secondary.
It’s very hard to separate her photographs from her life story. That never really succeeds of course, since photos usually tell about the author too. For Maier, photography is her way to be connected to the world. For that reason Anne Morin, director of co-partner diChroma Photography, decided to split the exhibition in Foam in three parts. It starts with the portraits of children since they are a major part of Maier’s life and can be seen as her only friends. Another room is dedicated to her self portraits, which Maier photographed a lot. “I make so many self portraits because I want to see who I am and to find my place in the world,” Maier says on one of her audio tapes. The main part of the exhibition consists of photographs she took on the streets, often when she was walking with the children she took care of.
Once you let go of her life story, you mostly see very strong photos. Her work is often compared to other famous street photographers like Robert Frank. Morin is right when she states that Maier is at least on par with them. Both in black and white and color, Maier knows how to compose a photograph. Her photographs are confronting, sometimes endearing or even funny. But above all, they are narrative. Maier takes you into the wonderful world of everyday life. It is remarkable that a woman shielding her life so well, manages to get so close to others. Some say the Rolleiflex makes it easy to photograph without attracting too much attention. At the same time Maier is anything but an inconspicuous appearance, according to the documentary Finding Vivian Maier. And looking at the color photographs, which she shot on 35mm, you see the same approach. You only learn little about Maier with her pictures, it is primarily an open view to the society. The exhibition at Foam is small, but illustrates clearly the essence of her work. The prints are wonderful, which is an achievement especially with the color photos printed from Kodachrome. Maier may have been collecting everything, she wasn’t a conservator.
After visiting the exhibition in Foam, one nagging question remains. What would Maier herself think of all the attention she gets nowadays? Most likely she would hate it, she didn’t use a cover for nothing. But probably she would be happy that her pictures are finally shown. She can be, with the way Foam presents her work, it is a good tribute to her photography.
Vivian Maier – Street Photographer
7th November 2014 – 28th January 2015
Nederlandse versie van deze blog op PhotoQ: Vivian Maier, te mooi om waar te zijn?