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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Vivian Maier


This post is one I've started multiple times and never finished--there's just so much to say and a lack of cohesiveness to my thoughts. The broad subject is: what is about Chicago that appeals to shy, yet prolific artists? The narrow is: Vivian Maier.
Vivian Maier is a prolific street photographer who documented Chicago's sidewalks from the 1950s through the 1990s. Her name has only recently entered the modern vocabulary of photographers because her work was not discovered until after her death. In fact, Maier never showed her photographs to anyone or even had many of them developed during her lifetime. She worked as a nanny for the nearly 40 years she was based in Chicago. Her work is not just significant in the fact that it was found after she passed--the photographs stand on their own; poignant portraits of people from all walks of life, self portraits that appear carefully crafted, and even stolen magical moments of evening light and reflective puddles.
In 2007 John Maloof stumbled across 30,000 negatives and prints from a storage locker. Slowly Maloof pieced together that this was the work of one photographer and began to acquire more of her nearly 100,000 negatives that had never been printed. Through more research Maloof began to learn about the shy Maier, who while profound in her photography led a quiet, unremarked upon life. Today there are several books available featuring her work and a documentary film in the works that will include interviews from families she nannied and further discussion on her curious life.
Of course, Maier is not the first artist in Chicago to only be discovered post-humously. Henry Joseph Darger was a reclusive writer and artist who's 15,145 singled-spaced fantasy manuscript was uncovered by his landlords after his death. His documentary In The Realms Of The Unreal is a fascinating peak into the complicated mind of an artist who spent his days working as a custodian. While his work is now one of the most popular pieces of outsider art and the term Vivian Girls had entered pop culture vocabulary, Darger like Maier made no attempt to publish or share his work. For both art seems to be purely for art's sake--perhaps a form of therapy or release.
So the question remains, what about Chicago attracts these reclusive artists who create with almost obsessive drive yet never publish? Maier photographed everyday scenes from Chicago nearly every day of her working life, yet she did not even seek to print many of her negatives even for personal enjoyment...it baffles in a society obsessed with fame and an art world defined mostly by recognition. And further, how many other unknown artists are spending their nights tirelessly crafting masterpieces that will never see the light of day?
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