There were moments nearly every day- especially in the 1950s and '60s- that nanny Vivian Maier would disappear wherever she was living. In cities like New York and Chicago, she quietly photographed street scenes, children, and herself, and hardly anyone knew.
"She said, 'I want to be the mystery woman,' so she rejoiced in that on some level. But she was intensely private. She had locks on her doors, wouldn’t let people into her room," according to scholar and photographer Karin Rosenthal who is co-curating an exhibition of a selection of Maier’s work in a new show at The Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.
Adding to her mystery, Maier rarely saw her own work. That was abundantly evident in 2007. Unable to pay the rent on her storage facilities, she saw their contents, including all her photography, auctioned off. There were more than 100,000 negatives, including some 2,700 undeveloped rolls of color and black-and-white film, according to Rosenthal.
"That, for a professional photographer, is hard to imagine- to not be showing your work publicly," said Rosenthal.
Since the auction and Maier’s death shortly thereafter her stardom in the art world has rocketed as gallery owners, curators, and collectors tout her as one of the great undiscovered talents of the 20th century.
"There’s a lot you can glean: she loved children, that’s quite clear," Rosenthal said. "She had tremendous empathy for their sense of play, their curiosity, the emotional dramas they lived with daily. She saw everybody in society, especially the ones that society didn’t acknowledge. She would go to the South Side of Chicago and photograph."
She did all that with a basic Rolleiflex camera.
"She was looking down into it," Rosenthal said. "People didn’t necessarily know what she was up to. She couldn’t draw these people close to her with a lens. She had to walk right into their space."
The posthumous release of Maier’s work raises questions about how to consider it. In this case it is not the artist who is deciding which prints should be released and how they should look and be produced. It is others who are creating her legacy.
"People say that many artists were made by editors, many writers, or many gallerists influence what is shown, what isn’t shown," Rosenthal said. "She may not have selected the best images when she printed them herself."
And Rosenthal said it’s also too soon, especially given that only a fraction of Maier’s work has been released, to decide where the photographer should rank in the eyes of critics.
"She’s been called a copycat or an encyclopedia of all the photography that was going on in the ‘50s," she said. "There was tons going on in the ‘50s. But when I examine that, I don’t see that to be the case at all. I don’t know anybody who photographed children the way she did, for one thing, or did self-portraits that were that imaginative or interesting, or included so much of the world around her."
Here, the pictures largely speak for themselves, even if the artist cannot.
See "Vivian Maier: A Woman's Lens" at Brandeis University through Dec. 18.