People live and die in obscurity all the time, and rarely do their stories take on second lives. Vivian Maier is that rare exception. She seemingly left nothing of herself behind when she died at 83 in 2009 except for the memories of the children for whom she was a nanny over the decades, the surviving parents and a few casual acquaintances. She was, on the surface, unremarkable.
What a surprise, then, that the woman with a minor footprint is now bigfooting the art world.
Through chance — or perhaps destiny — she has become an adulated photographer, her work the subject of posthumous exhibitions, books and a soon-to-be released documentary.
Maier's legacy was found in storage lockers that were auctioned to satisfy her debts, more than 100,000 negatives and prints taken mostly on big-city streets, mostly in Chicago where she worked. She apparently never showed them to anyone and most were undeveloped negatives. A young historian working on a book about a Chicago neighborhood discovered them and the rest, as we say, is history.
Forty-eight of them are on view at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts. (They are owned by a collector who acquired them later.)
Maier had an excellent eye. Her photographs combine Henri Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment" with, on occasion, Diane Arbus' gift for finding the weird or oddly humorous in everyday life. A girl stares from a cracked culvert at the beach in Wilmette (a suburb of Chicago), looking as if she's trapped in earthquake rubble. In Chicago, Maier snapped soldiers in a long line (probably on location during a demonstration or protest) fronted by a group of women. The way Maier framed it, the women appear to be the actual front line protecting the men.
She seemed to use stealth in many photographs, in the fashion of Weegee or Cartier-Bresson, taking a photograph of people unaware or just at the moment of recognition as we see in a mother's eyes as she stands with her family and the few boxes of their possessions at a bus station. Most seeing it would find sadness in it, as if the mother and father and their young children have been displaced. But we get no cues, no back stories from Maier about this or any other photograph because there is no evidence that she ever wrote of or spoke about her work.
There are a few interior shots: gardening gloves on a window sill, dishes in a kitchen sink with tomatoes ripening nearby, and a table and chair with a pay phone and empty Coke bottle. Taken with natural light, they have a poetic, gauzy nostalgia, as if the occupant had just departed.
She made numerous self-portraits, both in her bedroom, in front of a mirror, and during her roving. The exterior ones often look like double exposures because she was fond of shooting her reflection in a storefront door or window. She also portrayed herself in silhouette, as a shadow projected onto pavement. The self-portraits always have her holding her camera, not posing in front of it.
She used a Rolleiflex, a high-end camera. In her day, before everything became automatic and then digital, taking a photograph required more time and decision. She would have had to focus the lens, set the exposure time and advance the film manually.
That she developed such a small percentage of them into prints implies that she valued the process, the act of taking a photograph more than the results. Or perhaps she had a certainty of what she had captured on film and didn't need proof. Or maybe she just couldn't afford the lab fees.
As she aged, she could no longer work and became financially destitute. Three of her former charges paid for an apartment and living expenses until her death. By that time, her photographs had been auctioned. The historian and major buyer discovered her name but knew nothing else about her until her obituary appeared. Since then, he and others have teased out an outline of her life.
An argument can be made that, although she was a good photographer, the mystery attached to her and her against-the-odds discovery (which might have been against her wishes) is responsible for all the attention. It's true that a compelling context always makes art more interesting but it doesn't make it better. Her photographs are good because they have a technical proficiency. They're better than good because Maier knew when to click the shutter. And because what she saw through her viewfinder, we want to see, too.
The "Tampa Collectors Show" is about twice the size of the Vivian Maier exhibition and it showcases four collectors: Dr. Robert Drapkin, David R. Hall, Robert "Pancho" Sanchez and William K. Zewadski. It's understandably eclectic, and the selections for this show reveal the individual aesthetics that motivate collectors. Zewadski, for example, has a first-class collection of antiquities and the photographs here reflect classic studies of the human form. Sanchez has amassed some venerable names but he also has an interest in Hispanic subjects. Sometimes the two are combined, such as the portrait of a Cuban taken by Walker Evans in 1933. Hall celebrates women in his group. Philippe Halsman shows us Marilyn Monroe eating a hamburger in 1952 (and looking suspiciously mess-free), nudes floating by Edward Weston and Jerry Uelsmann, and Diane Arbus' portrait of a woman at a masked ball with her "I don't know why this image bothers us but it does" vibe. Drapkin has a well-known interest in the history of photography so we see an expected range of dates in this collection. What's really interesting is the photos taken in Angola, one set by Antonio de Sousa in 1911 and another by C. Lamote in 1950. Nothing seems to have changed in four decades in the native villages.
Both shows leave soon, on June 16, and each is worth a visit.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.