Monday, March 18, 2013

Review: Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams

It's an unfortunate if oft-repeated scenario: An artist goes unrecognized in his or her lifetime, only to have their work discovered and fêted too late for acclaim or riches. Such is the story of Vivian Maier, who spent her formative years in France, then worked as a nanny for a series of families in the United States, mostly in the Chicago area (for a brief stint, she even worked for Phil Donahue). She always carried a camera, but she never allowed anyone to see her photographs, and by all accounts she lived an extremely private life. So, her genius was never known while she lived. Her work was only discovered when her belongings were auctioned off, and someone who won a container full of undeveloped film examined the contents and discovered Art.

I first learned of her work thanks to a Facebook friend posting a link to the trailer for an upcoming documentary about Maier's life and work. I'm so glad that I took the 2-1/2 minutes to watch that video:


Maier's life story is intriguing, yes, full of secrets and mysteries. But her photographs are magical in their honesty and beauty. Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams provides a wonderful introduction to the artist and her art. After a brief biographical introduction, the bulk of the book is given over to chapters highlighting different aspects of her photography, beginning with snapshots from France and then delving into her chronicles of America in the 1950s and 1960s. (She continued photographing her surroundings well into the 1990s, apparently, and in color, too; but this book focuses on her '50s and '60s black-and-white work.)

She was not afraid to visit, regularly, the toughest, most run-down areas of Chicago, her young charges in tow, to photograph anyone she felt worthy of capturing. The humanity and dignity of her subjects, even those skid-row denizens whom most people might cross the street to avoid, come across vividly in her portraits. Some of these photos seem somewhat posed or at least contemplated, while others were obviously taken on the sly.

Amazingly, Maier almost never took multiple shots of the same subject (apart from the children in her care, and a series of pensive self-portraits, sometimes just of her own shadow): One carefully considered image was enough for her. And the results are stunning. The year 1968 was particularly pivotal for America, and indeed for Maier; there's a whole chapter devoted to her chronicles of that tumultuous time, with special attention paid to the life and death of Robert F. Kennedy. While I loved all of the images in the book, my favorites are the portraits in the chapter "Downtown" (pp. 206-241). Here are young people and old people; the rich, the poor, and the once-rich; characters all. These are only single portraits, but I feel as if I can see into these people's souls; the good and the sad are revealed in equal measure.

For all of the hundreds of images in this book, I realize that this collection only scratches the surface; I look forward to finding more of them to marvel at.

Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows
by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams
CityFiles Press, 2012
ISBN-10: 0978545095
ISBN-13: 978-0978545093
288 pages, $60.00