Vivan Maier makes the everyday extraordinary | Art Review | Chicago Reader

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Vivan Maier makes the everyday extraordinary

An exhibit at the Chicago History Museum offers a new perspective on the enigmatic photographer’s work.

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CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM, © THE ESTATE OF VIVIAN MAIER
  • Chicago History Museum, © The Estate of Vivian Maier

Something very interesting happens when a person encounters a Vivian Maier photograph. They stop, look closely, and find themselves asking where Maier was standing when she took this photograph. You start looking for Maier in her photos. Whether it is outside of the picture or inside of it. Often there is a shadow, a reflection, a hand or a finger in the frame if you spend enough time with the image. She is the punctum; and that isn’t by accident. Try to take a photo of her photos, and not only do you have an image of multiple fractured reflections, but you end up in the picture as well.

That is what happened to me and almost all viewers meeting a Maier image at the Chicago History Museum last week. We all started playing a tiny game of contorting our bodies to position ourselves the way she would have. Lean into the photograph to find traces of the woman and her camera. Find ourselves wondering how she saw what she saw. Maier’s world is elusive and distant, even in color.

On display in the Chicago History Museum, “Vivian Maier: In Color” is a multimedia exhibition featuring 65 color images made during her time as a suburban Chicago nanny from the 1950s to 1970s. Organized by guest curator Frances Dorenbaum, the show allows present-day visitors who are just getting out of their houses to go to museums the opportunity to reflect on the striking parallels between Maier's way of looking and ours now—Maier could observe people without herself being seen. From what little we know about her life, she didn’t even want people to know where she lived, using a PO box to receive her mail rather than a home address; when working as a live-in nanny, she would demand a lockable bedroom door. She often lied about her personal history.

Vivian Maier is one of the great enigmas of the art world. She took more than 150,000 photographs in her lifetime, but hardly showed them to anyone. Maier, who died in 2009 at 83, funded her photography by working as a nanny for almost 40 years with families in Chicago’s North Shore. On her days off, or on outings with the kids in her charge, she wandered the streets of Chicago with her camera, sometimes also interviewing people she photographed. Her work was famously discovered posthumously in 2010. “Vivian Maier: In Color” brings 65 never-before-seen photographs together for an intimate show.

CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM, © THE ESTATE OF VIVIAN MAIER
  • Chicago History Museum, © The Estate of Vivian Maier
CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM, © THE ESTATE OF VIVIAN MAIER
  • Chicago History Museum, © The Estate of Vivian Maier

“Vivian Maier: In Color”

Through May 8, 2023, Tue-Sat 9:30 AM-4:30 PM, Sun noon-5 PM, Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark, 312-642-4600, chicagohistory.org, $19, $17 for students and seniors, children 18 and under free.


The show is replete with commentary and wall text that gives context to her world. Maier is looking through, looking upwards, downwards, watching from behind to avoid the “risk of getting too close to a stranger,” the wall text says. There is safety in distance, in observing without engaging, in finding oneself reflected. There are multiple self portraits in the show, peculiar even for someone as enigmatic as Maier. Walking through the show, you wonder about the woman more than the images. Was she trying to find herself in refractions? Are the objects also self portraits?

It’s a show full of standouts. There is a breathtaking 1959 image of two Black women looking straight at the camera while framing a group of white businessmen with an American flag in the background. The opening self portrait is bright and clear in reflections of Maier while the bracketing self portrait in the end is a complex refraction. A woman looks at her bedroom while Maier looks at her from just outside the door frame. The lions at the Art Institute of Chicago are recognizable only by what they frame: the Chicago skyline and posters on the billboards. The Chicago stock exchange building is nothing but metal and bricks and the people around it. Maier was there, seeing it happen. She was also there, making sure no one saw her witness. “I’m sort of a spy,” she’d tell people. “I’m the mystery woman.”

There is a strange parallel to the world we live in currently to what she saw. We are looking at the world turned upside down. We are looking at the spring from outside our windows. We are looking and trying to understand the intersections and tensions in the world we live in. Maier just managed to capture it. It is almost triggering how intimate her work is. Her world is vital and dynamic, and life is happening around her; be it the intimacy of falling asleep on a train or holding hands in public or the languish of eating out of a lunchbox alone, Maier makes the everyday extraordinary by looking at it from under a crack in the wall. She gives it that attention.

CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM, © THE ESTATE OF VIVIAN MAIER
  • Chicago History Museum, © The Estate of Vivian Maier
CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM, © THE ESTATE OF VIVIAN MAIER
  • Chicago History Museum, © The Estate of Vivian Maier

On a wall of portraits in the show, you can imagine her, with her camera, a Rolleiflex, operated at chest level. These were definitely the ones she asked permission to take. This is where the curator’s presence is most felt in the show. You wonder about these people and their names. There is no race in the photographs’ titles but you can see the parallels you are being asked to draw. There are eight photos, people of all races and age groups. Put side by side, you see the differences in their context, the expression, in the kind of clothes they are wearing, the way their eyes and faces feel safe or not safe enough in the presence of a camera. Reminiscent of Tonika Lewis Johnson’s Folded Map Project, these people are Chicagoans, but what does that mean for each of them, especially put against one another like the show allows?

“Vivian Maier: In Color” is very much a curator's show—from the framing with white cardboard to the size of the photos—there is elusiveness built into how you encounter the work. You have to get closer to the photo to examine it fully. These are not larger-than-life prints. The wall text reflects the curator’s thought process. Like us, Frances Dorenbaum is also asking if the subject agreed to be photographed or if Maier was intending for us to see her work the way we are now, in an art gallery, in the fine art world.

The exhibit also gives opportunity to elaborate and build racial context into Maier’s work. We know very little about how politically charged Maier was, but there are definite racial considerations and critical race theory consciousness at play in the curation of the show. There are two very poignant arrangements: in a striking quartet towards the end of the show, one photo shows President Eisenhower entering a hotel lobby, captured from an angle that shows his face as just another man’s face; in that moment only the bold lettering is a signifier of his power. In a frame opposite to that, you see a motorcade rally in his celebration. There is a group of policemen laughing in a photograph on top while a Black child watches the celebration go by. He is held closely by a woman, presumably his mother. Towards the end of the show, there are two photos of children. One is two white children playing with a garden hose, the water filtering out their very clear joy. On the other side, two Black children are looking out from a window; they are suspicious and wary—their joy just held within a fist of metal and glass.

In Maier’s work the only thing to be controlled is how the photos are arranged, what stories the curator decides to center with the images available to them. Whose faces are we looking at and what are you taking away from this arrangement? What can be understood about the woman who managed to get away with being invisible to the world while creating such a visible legacy?   v

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