This exhibition features 70 photographs (50 black-and-white and 20 color prints) of people encountered on the streets of New York City and Chicago by the late photographer Vivian Maier (1926 – 2009).
Maier’s photographs, created between the late 1940s and the early 1980s, were kept completely private by the artist and caused a stir when they were first exhibited at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2011. Elusive, solitary, and clearly talented, Vivian Maier is the quintessential “undiscovered” artist of our time.
The still unfolding narrative of who Vivian Maier was as well as the story about how the works were discovered—at a storage facility auction— continue to dominate the discussions about Maier’s work. In fact, with the exception of a short article by art historian Abigail Solomon-Godeau commissioned by the Jeu de Paume, there have not yet been any systematic investigations of Maier’s archive resulting in vetted scholarship. As a result, there are still many questions to be raised and discussions to be had about Maier’s photographs. While presenting Maier’s striking and popular works, the Art Center will pose questions and facilitate discussions about her photography, and in so doing introduce the considerations that are made about newly found art works that result in the acceptance—or not—into the history of art. The Art Center has also invited the distinguished art historian John Tagg, one of the most recognized figures in photographic theory, to speculate about Maier’s work in light of his scholarship, which he will share in a lecture in October.
Compelling issues we will discuss regarding Maier’s work include:
More than 200,000 negatives of Vivian Maier’s work exist but so far only a fraction of the works have been made public. A decision was made to focus on the photographs Maier made on the street—thereby labeling her a “street photographer.” What are the benefits and drawbacks of categorizing Maier’s work right now?
With a handful of exceptions, very few women photographers have taken pictures on the street. Vivian Maier could be added to this short list that includes Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt, and Lisette Model among others. Why do so few women photographers work on the street? And in light of her gender, what does Maier’s work contribute to discussions about photographs of the street?
Compared to the number of negatives Maier produced, very few vintage prints exist. The prints on view in this exhibition were chosen and produced in the last five years by John Maloof, one of the people who discovered her work. Therefore, we don’t know if the images Maloof chose to print are those the artist herself would have selected. How does this affect the way that we consider Maier’s work?
Maier was a very private person who, as far as anyone can determine at this point, never intended to publicly exhibit her work. From an ethical standpoint, is it right to refute her wishes and exhibit the work anyway? If so, why?
Vivian Maier: Through a Critical Lens was organized by the Maloof Collection, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York. The Art Center’s presentation was organized by Art Center Senior Curator Alison Ferris.