Chicago Cultural Center unearths untrained genius

The photographs of Vivian Maier, an untrained and unknown photographer, rival those of famed masters.

By Morgan McCarty

If every picture tells a thousand words, then Vivian Maier’s body of 100,000 images has a lengthy novel to tell. It is a tale of discovery, history, and life. Walking through the Chicago Cultural Center’s “Finding Vivian Maier: Street Photographer,” the viewer is overwhelmingly intrigued, both by the photos’ subjects and the photographer herself.

A few years ago, over 100,000 negatives, thousands of prints, and a mound of underdeveloped film was discovered alongside numerous piles of personal effects not unlike those seen on A&E’s show Hoarders. Chicago real estate agent John Maloof discovered this trove, having come across Maier’s photo collection at an auction. He purchased it in its entirety, unable to contact the previous owner as she had very recently died. During the process of sifting through the belongings, Maloof began to weave together Maier’s unusual life and unique work through extensive research.

Maloof was able to uncover the story of a woman born in New York City in 1926 to French and Austrian parents who later moved to Chicago in the 1950s. During her time in Chicago, Maier was a nanny to many wealthy North Shore families. Her exhibit displays a secret, technically-untrained passion for street photography. It is a fraction of a large body of work that documents Chicago and New York streets, as well as various places around the world during a greater part of the second half of the twentieth century.

Alongside her recently printed photographs sit her cameras, film spools, a few vintage prints, and some notes, which lend some helpful context about her life. Her extensive collection of things includes many books on photography, audio interviews, and photographs of creative luminaries such as Christian Dior, Salvador Dalí, and Nelson Algren. They allude to her interaction with the cultural elite, both in Chicago and New York.

All signs of Maloof’s research seem to point to the idea that Maier was self-taught in the medium of photography. One might not easily deduce, upon viewing her work for the first time, that she was indeed self-instructed. Her photographs are remarkably composed, framed and reference predecessors of the street photography style like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, and Paul Strand. One image of two young boys with unusual, knobby legs also calls to mind Diane Arbus’ quirky and eccentric style. Maier’s more fashion-oriented images distinctly strike chords with fans of one of today’s most famous street fashion photographers: Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist fame. Both in number and subject, Maier’s images encompass the broad history of street photography.

The exhibit includes numerous facets of street life. There are downtrodden homeless men and women slumped on street corners and across stoops. Tensions are explored between the dirty, homeless street dwellers and the clean, wealthy men and women passing by. The elderly are captured strolling in their Sunday best. Some images feature the sick and obese sitting for Maier’s lens. Children also stand for Maier’s camera, attentive and curious. People are waiting for the bus, their faces tilted to capture the warm day’s light. Each photo highlights the subject’s mode of dress, probable occupation, and social status, among other things.

Much like Maier and her collection, the images themselves beg to be explored, even beg to be given a story if the actual one is unknown. The viewer is left to wonder about each image’s subject, their hopes, troubles, and activities.

Maier captured many a person, but not one without personality and character, even if they lack notoriety. Each of her photographs convey a sense of a unique individual without any heavy overtones of social commentary or judgment. Maier’s body of work speaks for itself in a unique and captivating voice.