Vivian Maier:
Playing with Reality

Today, we know Vivian Maier (1926-2009) as a talented and prolific street photographer working in the 1950s and 1990s. However, she never received this recognition during her lifetime because image-making was a practice she kept to herself. She took candid shots of people out and about, from groups of children playing to nuns gathering by the sidewalk. It’s estimated that she took more than 150,000 images. However, many of these negatives were undeveloped because she lacked stability in her career and finances. In 2007, a storage company auctioned off many of these possible because of her inability to pay rental fees. Filmmaker and photographer John Maloof bought many of them, making him the first person to bring her work to the public eye. Now, Fotografiska New York continues to uncover her vast collection by unveiling their new exhibition, Vivian Maier: Unseen Work. The show features 230 monochrome and colour prints as well as her audio recordings and super 8 films. It’s a complete survey of the artist’s rich archive, which serves as a fascinating testimony to post-war USA and the facade of the American dream. We interviewed the Director of diChroma Photography Anne Morin, who curated this landmark show. Read on to learn more about how Unseen Work came together and the importance of “play” in Maier’s practice.

A: Unseen Work marks the first retrospective of Maier not only in the US but also in her birthplace, New York City. How did this project come about?
This is our first major exhibition in the United States, after an initial stint in Mexico – at the Franz Mayer Museum – which marked our entry into the Americas. It took almost 15 years after John Maloof discovered Maier’s photography for her pieces to return to her native home town. Her work went through a veritable process of maturation, discovery and revelation during this time. However, Maier’s name continued to rise as her prints became more and more visible until it finally settled into the history of photography. This exhibition, Unseen Work, is the crowning achievement of these 15 years. As the curator, it’s brings me great satisfaction to open such a major exhibition in the place where the images were conceived. The streets of New York is where her visual language was defined, made and constituted.

A: Maier left behind over 150,000 negatives and this exhibition brings to light 230 of these works. Could you tell us about the selection process for this show?
It was a long process. I almost had to tame this archive, and wait for things to catalyse and pacify. At first sight, what lay in front of me was immense chaos. I almost felt like a ragpicker, one facing an interminable pile of things and waiting to know what they’re going to do with the things they’ve collected. It was necessary to be cautious, to wait for things to wake up on their own and, above all, to bring out the main axes that would make up this archive. The main chapters of this show are: the street, portraits, self-portraits, childhood, colour and cinema. These themes emerged through a process of looking and looking again. It’s similar to Maier own practice, where she would return to the same areas again and again for almost 45 years. This is a quality I find fascinating and I’ve called it “cinetism” in the exhibition. This term refers to the passage between the still image and the moving one. It describes Maier’s powerful ability to inject time and continuity into the static frame. To achieve this, I had to make an extremely drastic and uncompromising selection. I was like a precise and meticulous surgeon.

A: Can you describe for us a few of your favourite pieces on display?
Throughout the exhibition, there are moments of contraction. Here we see time crystallize in a different way because it’s not a question of a succession of moments – of “detonation” as Walter Benjamin called it – but of a kind of correspondence and coincidences between different temporalities. I find this quite exceptional. From the mid-1960s onwards, Maier worked with film and photography simultaneously. When she wandered through Chicago’s mostly working-class neighbourhoods, her first impulse was to film her surroundings. Here, she focused not on what she saw, but how. The camera tracked the way her eyes moved through the space. Her moving image works document her search for the photographic still. Once she found the photograph, she would stop filming and pick up her Rollei to capture the moment. There are several of these correspondences in the exhibition, some of them doubled up with contact sheets of the matching images and films. These incidences allow us, for a few minutes, to dive into the depths of Maier’s retina and witness – through her own vision – how reality presented itself to her. It’s simply fascinating.

A: There are prints from the early 1950s all the way to the 1990s. In what ways does Maier’s practice change over this time period?
There is precisely no change in Maier’s practice between the beginning of her trajectory and the end. By the end of the 1940s, she had already established the specifics of her language, her vocabulary, her synthesis and her “style”. This is quite remarkable because she had confidently defined her specificities from the outset. If you look at a portrait she made in 1955, for example, and another taken 30 years later, the composition is similar and the texture too. With Maier, there is no vertical progression, but rather a horizontal shift from one theme to another. This is quite extraordinary in the history of photography, as if her style had been in gestation even before she had a camera in her hands.

A: Mirrors and reflections are a recurring motif in Maier’s self-portraits. Why do you think this theme keeps appearing in her work?
These extremely photographic and optical elements are constantly present in Maier’s images, particularly in her self-portraits. Why? Probably because Maier never ceases to play, to outwit, to hide and to appear where we least expect it. To do this, she resorts to visual equations whose solution always remains an enigma.

A: Maier’s oeuvre extends beyond the still image to documentary films and audio recordings. Could you tell us more about the video and sound works on display?
The word that best defines Maier is “play”. She plays with reality and with what seems obvious. In this way, she reminds me of French actor and director Georges Méliès and his false connections between fiction and reality. Things are never what they seem, and Maier turns the skin of reality inside out before our fascinated eyes. She achieves this through a variety of media: film, still and moving images. She has fun, she tells stories, she wanders through the other side of the world and she collects moments. Each image, each soundtrack forms an immense assemblage that populates her own world. This can be seen as her version of a “room of one’s own”, which was so aptly described by Virginia Woolf in her famous 1929 essay.

A: What considerations did you make when it came to the layout of this show? What do you wish for audiences to take away after seeing Vivian Maier: Unseen Work?
At every exhibition, I learn something new. It’s a bit like reading the same book several times. You can never see everything completely at once. Each show is a new reading, one that is finer, more sensitive and more precise. Here in New York, there is of course a harmony of times and places that make up the character of the city. The public will be able to feel the palpitations of New York – felt through its tempo, its music – through time, from 70 years ago until now. It’s an immense gift, in every sense of the word, to the visitors who come to see Unseen Work. It’s also an immense gift not only to Vivian Maier but to all women photographers and creators who have remained in the shadows. Maier has become an icon. This exhibition is part of a wonderful program set up by Kering called Women In Motion, which aims to highlight women in the world of arts and culture. This program contributes to the elevation of the Maier from invisibility to iconicity. I hope those who see the show allow themselves be carried away, surprised and simply moved by this powerful, sensitive and delicate work and that they feel beautiful emotions.

A: What are you curating now? Could you tell us about any future shows we can look forward to?
In the literal Latin sense of the word, to curate means to “to take care of.” As a Curator, I take care of my past projects, those that are built, constructed and traveling the world, like a gardener. I always making sure that my plans have enough light to grow. This doesn’t just include Maier but also Sally Mann, Isabel Muñoz, Saul Leiter, Sandro Miller, Ruth Orkin and more. It’s a constant work in progress. In addition, I’m currently working on the Horst P. Horst archive, which never ceases to amaze me by revealing that he wasn’t just a fashion photographer. I’m in the process of measuring the breadth and depth of his work, and I think we’re dealing with an ouevre that’s much more monumental than it seems, because it has roots that come from another time – but I can’t reveal that secret just yet!

Fotografiska New York, Vivian Maier: Unseen Work | Until 29 September

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh and Anne Morin

Image Credits:

  1. Self-Portrait, New York, NY, 1954.
  2. Central Park, New York, NY, September 26, 1959.
  3. Self-Portrait, New York, NY, 1953.
  4. Chicago, IL, May 16, 1957.
  5. Self-Portrait, New York, NY, 1954.