First of all, there are her self-portraits. It’s obvious that Vivian Maier had one passion: taking photos of herself using any reflective surface. In the rear-view mirror of a car, in a shop window or in front of a bizarre metal device, the photographer has captured her silhouette and her very individual face in some disconcerting images. She looks into the lens as if knowing that she would be looked at, as it she was anticipating the fact that one day thousands and thousands of visitors would go and crowd around her photos. “These self-portraits really are an enigma” Françoise Morin, the gallery director, believes, “and it’s perhaps here that Vivian Maier’s individuality as a photographer can be best be seen”. A strange lady who looked like an odd passer-by, dressed in a long coat and distinctive hats in very French style which she tried hard to immortalise by catching the effect of her shadow with her camera.
Because Vivian Maier is shrouded in myth. This woman, who had been a nanny in various families and who, almost clandestinely, discreetly, spent her life photographing the world around her and then did nothing with it, visibly tried hard not to have a career in the world of photography. She died in 2009 and left no fewer than 145,000 photos, of which a very large part had never been developed. It was through a lucky auction that a young American, John Maloof, bought her rolls of film and then became aware of the value of these photos by showing them to connoisseurs, particularly the American street photographer Joel Meyerowitz. “After having looked at all the photos, I was overcome with the pleasure one feels when looking at intelligent, evocative work,” he states in the text of the book which accompanies this exhibition: The Color work.
But behind the myth, there is primarily the enigma. Why did she never show her photographs? Why did she sneak around the world without opening the big doors, in order to steer clear from the world in her own desert? Vivian Maier has many secrets and it’s difficult to want to lift the veil from them free from personal judgement or interpretation. Her work, her fabulous, unclassifiable work remains. The daily wanderings of a woman in Chicago and New York during the 1950s to 1970s. A woman who was capable of catching the hustle and bustle of the street, the faces of passers-by, a demeanour, a gesture. With Vivian Maier, detail is an obsession. She hunts it down, spies on it and captures it. She’s interested in the shape of people. She sometimes splits bodies up, for example showing just two legs, one of which has been hurt and wears a bandage, or handshakes, the hands of two old people, a vibrant indication of emotion in the life of a couple.
This is yet another intriguing aspect of Vivian Maier: her utter solitude. In her photographs, she appears to be constantly withdrawn, set apart from others, creeping up on them. She often takes photos of people from behind and almost always without them knowing. She silently snatches a portrait of onlookers, outsiders, people who are just passing on their way through the uncertain maze of the world. For example, there’s the man smoking a cigarette, back to the wall, with a vacant stare as though lost in thought, looking into the distance, remembering something from the past rather than being in the present moment. There is a young man surrounded by big, coloured balloons who seems to be absorbed in the passing time. There is a young woman on the beach, a pink swimming hat on her head, contemplating the horizon. Vivian Maier has fun drawing the portrait of an entire society where the individual is triumphant, but which has its share of the marginalised and rejected that she makes sure to reveal. She plays with codes and conventions and sets out her own style which consists in evoking a mystery, the gaze of a frustrated, emotional and solitary person.
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Vivian Maier, The Color Work
19th January – 30th March 2019
Galerie Les Douches, 5 Rue Legouvé, 75010 Paris