Searching further into Vivian Maier’s expansive archive

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A new exhibition showcases a selection of the 150, 000 artefacts discovered after the former nanny’s death

An exhibit dedicated to Vivian Maier opens at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes on eleven June, following a showcase with Musée du Luxembourg in Paris over the winter. Behind her striking visuals, Maier (1926–2009) has a remarkable tale. Between New York and Chicago, she led a ‘double-life’ as a caretaker while – unbeknown to those who thought they knew her – taking thousands of images of urban goings-on with the girl Rolleiflex. The resultant entire body of work, comprising greater than 150, 000 images and assorted paraphernalia, remained undiscovered during her lifetime. Consciously or not, she inventoried an entire era – its styles and its behavioural norms.

Delivered in New York to European parents, Maier moved to Chi town in 1956, where the girl worked as a nanny intended for bourgeois suburban families for over 40 years. She was reclusive and although she resided with her employers, these people knew little about her personal life. Maier’s function only came to light when the contents of the storage locker in which she had stowed her possessions were auctioned off due to missed payments. A young man, John Maloof, bought its contents for less than $400 and progressively place the images he had inadvertently found out on Flickr, where they received an outsized reaction. The story was turned into the documentary, Getting Vivian Maier (2013), by Maloof themself.

Vivian Maier, New York, 1953
© Property of Vivian Maier, Thanks to Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY.

“There is the mystery of Vivian Maier the person, and there is the mystery of Vivian Maier the oeuvre, ” says Anne Morin, who also curated the show and has previously overseen exhibitions by Robert Doisneau and Jacques Henri Lartigue. That pending mystery has brought up arguments about consent, and whether showcasing a corpus Maier never herself brought on is ethical. Morin acknowledges: “Of course, we touch on questions of meaningful integrity. But we’re performing a duty of memoir above all else. When we show her work, we do her justice; we pay tribute to her. We complete the particular historical record, which was not done in her lifetime. ” Morin constricts herself to the “sphere of the visible” and distinguishes that “we are certainly not invited into the sphere of her life – all those mysteries belong to her on your own. It’s like the mummy’s curse: there are things you just do not touch. ”

Maier’s tale has ultimately had a worldwide impact because “she does not have a tangible identity. The lady speaks to you, she speaks to me…. everyone recognises themselves. There’s a liquid aspect to her, ” Morin notes. Nonetheless, she explains that other people’s capability to project themselves onto her does not minimise her agency. Maier’s film clips act as a key example, showing all of us not just what she sees, but the manner in which she positively looks.

The MK Gallery exhibition features 146 black-and-white and colour photographs – mostly from the 1950s and 1960s – as well as Extremely 8 and 16mm films and audio recordings. Morin describes the exhibition as transmitting “the architecture of the archive, which is colossal”. She describes Maier as a chiffonier, a 19th-century rag-and-bone enthusiast. As such, Morin’s curatorial role was “to sort through the particular maremágnum”. Morin was thinking about the periphery of the archive as much as the photographic output. She discovered Maier-owned digital photography books by Arnold Newman, Thomas Struth, Ron Galella and Berenice Abbott, plus there’s evidence that she saw the seminal exhibit The Family of Man on the MoMA in 1955. Morin spent a decade familiarising himself with the contents of Maier’s archive and wanted to give a kind of “restitution” of Maier’s vision.

Vivian Maier, New York, 1954 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY.

Maier’s constant go back to certain themes shows her obsession with metropolitan mélange and everyday moments. The lady slyly and keenly observed how minutiae can communicate about relationships. The body vocabulary of affection is conveyed through the cropping of body, filling the frame with minor gestures: the soft brush of hands in order to reveal the thrill of touch, or black low-heeled pumps toe-to-toe with tiny white child sneakers, converting the sweet bond between different ages. She used a cinematographic language to draw out affecting ephemeral details situated within the urban panorama. Plus from prim, glamorous females in fur coats in order to threadbare, destitute men, Maier’s curiosity was democratic. She did not shy away from taking photos of those struggling in the margins – indeed, Maier was missing the reticence that often enforces social boundaries.

Her own figure was often part of the photo taking act: self-portraits partially obfuscated by her camera, prescient of the mirror selfies that have come to dominate our feeds. The recurrence of her own outline, in shadow or distorted in unexpected areas, feels playful, experimental, yet more than anything, self-affirming. “This is a standout moment, in particular, for women in the history of digital photography: dormant archives are appearance into the historical narrative, and they’re irrevocable to it, ” Morin notes. “Maier especially touches on contemporary downturn in identity. The reverberation of her work talks to this grappling with selfhood and visibility that every generation faces; while always reframes anew, there is comfort in seeing its legacy. ”

Sarah Moroz

Dorothy Moroz is a Franco-American reporter and translator based in Paris, france. Her words have been published in the International New York Instances, the Guardian, Vogue, NYLON, and others.

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