This is a documentary exhibition, both methodologically and with regards to subject: Vivian Maier documents her surroundings; the exhibition documents the work of Vivian Maier. Showcasing ca. 50 photographs as well as a selection of the artist’s documentary super 8-films, the exhibition overviews Maier’s whole oeuvre including some of the rare vintage prints developed by Maier herself.
The photographs and films may be divided in various groups: street scenes, apparently; portraits; self-portraits; shadow self-portraits; photographical still lifes. Some of the images reach the grotesque with the characters recalling figures taken from the French 18th-century; others reflect the objective aesthetics of American photography in the second half of the 20th-century, however, always with a poetic and startling twist. Apart from the purely visual content, it is the sense – warmth, hurry, bewilderment – of the situation which is transmitted. Thus, these are rich images in their true sense.
Vivian Maier shows an eye for the bizarre: a man performing a headstand in front of a “Striporama”-advertisement, and a girl repairing her shoe next to it. Or a dog well-behavingly sitting in a shop’s entrance with two men exciting the adjacent door, apparently amused about the view. There is no judgement in these images, nothing discrediting. Rather a mutual appreciation. After all, we all have our flaws.
In some photographs, movie-like scenes pair with art history with an elegantly pointing finger recalling Michelangelo’s Creationin the Sixtine Chapel (San Juan, Puerto Rico 4/15, 1965). Or a modern print of the Mona Lisa with curlers in a shop window (Chicago 2/15, July 1977). Fixing the right moment as key to the photographical image.
The films show garbage snapshots; cattle containers; people waiting in front of a church in what seems a wedding or other official event; a newspaper add; a diner scene; a public carnival event with its waiting and boredom – the ‘behind the scenes’. These images document a time which is not anymore: a take-away popcorn station; men with hats, women with butterfly glasses (many butterfly glasses). And yet, some things stay(ed) the same: Young women with fashion magazines, men with caps, Broadway advertisements in flashing lights.
All images, i.e. their subjects share a mixture of waiting, rushing, and observing. The films and photographs come both in black and white and coloured which gives a welcome variation. Maier started using the latter form the 1960s onwards. In terms of reception, the images in black and white put an emphasis on form(s) and gesture. While the colour emphasizes emotion and impression.
While some of the images remain clearly attached to their time due to e.g. hair or fashion styling, others turn out to be astonishingly contemporary: the two boys looking directly into the camera in Chicago 7/15, April 1977. Or the lovers’ hands in New York, NY 1/15, 1954. The wit and by times cruel bluntness on the photographer’s side unite them. Which in other words may be called: empathy.
These images are a taking of opportunities: Arrogance, cruelty, thought un-observedness, i.e. nonchalance, ease – confrontation. The same applies to the self-portraits which are cunning and shy at the same time. But the rigour, earnestness and curiosity of the maker are always perceivable.
So, what do we take from these images, and their times? Style. Composure (with regards to dressing) in non-composure (with regards to gesture/expression). Ultimately, if somewhat pathetically: Keep your eye open, and friendly towards your neighbor. No matter what their situation might be.
One sentence may be added which seems to have been formed exactly for Vivian Maier’s approach. The reader is free to translate:
Ein schöner Rücken kann auch entzücken.
Ein schöner Bauch tut es auch. (Freely by the author)