By Dave Fultz
I went to the Vivian Maier show at the Chicago Cultural Center this morning. If you’re in the Chicago area, do go; it’s worth it. The show is nicely mounted and this morning there were no more than 10 people there so there was no problem in standing for a long time looking at a print.
I think the jury is going to be out for a quite a while on the judgment of whether she was one of the top street photographers of the 20th century. For one thing, they are a long way away from cataloging the more than one hundred thousand negatives she left. Who knows what images lie in those boxes?
My reaction to the work is more modest than some. I do think she was very talented but the exhibition images overall left me pleased but not stunned save for a couple images. Her portraits of children are wonderful: direct, spontaneous, clear-sighted and sometimes quite humorous. Her portraits of adults on the other hand are curious. There is a peculiar sort of neutrality to many of them that some might say is a discursive style choice but that I find lacks the direct human connection that is so often the mark of truly great street photography. It could be that I'm projecting what I know of her character from the Chicago Magazine story, but I don’t think so. I also wonder about the effect of looking down at the Rolleiflex screen at the moment of exposure.
There are several stunners in the show. The picture of the (probable) vagabond sitting in a doorway (above) is simply magnificent. Deeply sculptural. For some reason I kept thinking of the Pietà even though the subject is not at all the same. Here, although you can sort of see the image in the online JPEG, the presence and power of a real print makes a huge difference. The picture of the two boys (below) is very powerful. At first glance it looks a little "Our Gang"-y but as you continue to look you realize this is very complicated, disturbing, odd. Wonderful. There are a number of other first-class portraits in the show.
The curators included two display cases with her cameras and some curiosities. The last thing I looked at before leaving the exhibition was a handwritten note, probably from a camera-store counterman to the guys back in the photo lab. It said, "Do Best Job—So NO Redo!! Customer is very particular!!"
Get to this show if you can!
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.