Unless you’ve been locked away in a pretend spaceship, like those Russian astronauts, you’ve likely heard the name Vivian Maier in the last year or so. It would be almost impossible to have avoided her name entirely, though you might not be exactly sure who she is/was, or why her name stuck in your head. So allow me to clear up any confusion.
I can’t think of a parallel really. It’s almost like when Nintendo first came out back in the day. (Oh Mike Tyson’s Punch-out, where have you been?) One day, no one had heard the name Nintendo, and within a few months, every one of your friends had one. (Except me. I was the dunce that bought Sega, pre-Sega Genesis. Ouch.) But, clearly, I digress.
Ms. Maier was a prolific street photographer who lived in Chicago, and spent time in New York as well. She died, an unknown, in 2009. (Thereby pulling a Van Gogh part Deux, what with the exclusively post-humous fame.) A local Chicago historian discovered her archives, and the rest, as they say, is _______. Now that this work has been everywhere, (an exhibition opens today in Santa Fe at the Monroe Gallery,) it’s finally been released in book form by powerHouse. Apparently, there were something like 100,000 negatives to digest, so before you even open the book, you’re impressed by the sheer editorial effort.
Once you open it up and get started, it’s an odd experience, though thoroughly pleasurable. So many references popped into my head. Some expected: Frank, Arbus, Winnogrand, Callahan, Levitt, Strand, Evans, Ray Metzker, & Weegee. Others, totally fresh and surprising: Chris Jordan, Roger Ballen, Frederick Sommer. It’s almost like you’ve seen this group of photographs before, while at the same time, you’ve never seen any of the individual images in your life. Does that make sense? As little is known about the artist, it’s hard to say if she was riffing on masters, or just stumbled into this mash-up style. (Which is excellent, through and through.)
The plates are well-produced, with plenty of grayscale range. The pacing is taut, and the juxtapositions fantastic, particularly for their narrative quality. An example: Three kids on the street, one putting a small mattress into a baby carriage, another stout little blonde kid staring straight up, his look saying, “Huh?” That’s followed directly by an image of an African-American young man riding a horse down a city street, under an elevated train. After which we see a cowboy walking down the sidewalk, all duded up. (I’ve got to believe she was directly riffing on the Frank image from “The Americans,” though I suppose we’ll never know.)
Empathy, humor, respect for her subjects, a keen eye for detail, a mastery of texture, it’s all there. The gradation of light on some tough looking old guy’s face illuminates the pores of his skin, while his eyes look just above the camera. He must have cracked a heap of skulls in his day. It’s juxtaposed with a nun, resting up against the corner of a building, lost in thought. I could write about the contrasts all day if I wanted to. But then this would be a dissertation, rather than a book review. (And then no one, anywhere, would ever read it.)
So let’s wrap this up, shall we? This is an excellent book. I love it, and any fan of B&W street photography likely will as well. One oddity is the lack of information about the exact dates and places in which the images were made. (Nobody knows…) But a little mystery isn’t such a bad thing, is it?
Bottom line: Wonderful book, worth the hype
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