Double Exposure

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Career nanny Vivian Maier"s posthumous recognition as a photographer

By Penny Gray

The Howard Greenberg Gallery has just opened an exhibition of the photographic works of Vivian Maier (1926–2009) from the Maloof Collection. If the name doesn"t ring a bell, it"s because Maier"s work is a recent discovery.

Vivian Maier, “Untitled, Self-portrait, n.d. © Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC

A career nanny, Maier lived a life of anonymity, caring for children and traveling with wealthy families around the world's all the while, it seems, taking pictures. While working on a definitive history of the Portage Park neighborhood in Chicago, John Maloof discovered her work at a local auction house in 2007, and so began his collection.

In her lifetime, Maier generated more than 2,000 rolls of film, 3,000 prints and more than 100,000 negatives of her work with the help of a trusty Rolleiflex she carried at all times. She shared the images with no one. The photos range in subject from candid images of women and children to snapshots of insurrection capturing the unseen lives of the downtrodden and destitute.

Of Maier and her work, Howard Greenberg reflected, “It is such an unusual story with no resolution. At first, her images are extremely well-seen, quality photographs of life on the street, in New York City and Chicago. But as one looks at the body of her work, she reveals deeper interests. Then one tries to imagine who she was, what motivated her, her personality.

The exhibition represents the wide scope of Maier"s body of work but fails to delve into a consolidation of her essential output. Mediocre and amateurish prints of city architecture are displayed alongside well-composed and affecting images of homely humanity existing in geometric space. In one print, a newspaper vendor sleeps standing up in the midst of rows and rows of magazines, perfectly boxed in by his occupation. Maier had an astounding ability to frame displacement, and this gift has been underexplored in the Greenberg exhibition.

Indeed, the most successful of her images are the most personal. Maier"s series of self-portraits visually manifest Emily Dickinson"s meditation on invisibility: “I"m Nobody! Who are you? In each image, Maier cleverly employs an inanimate object to diffuse her identity: a reflective window returns Maier"s distorted and ghostly image to herself, a mirror in an antique shop reveals her miniature reflection, the head of a sprinkler bounces back a minuscule version of herself next to her looming, faceless shadow. Not unlike Dickinson, Maier plays a game in her self-portraits, enjoying the intellectual conceit of un-becoming.

These are meditations on the disappearing act of existence, and they come closest to the essential spirit of Maier"s work. As she herself said, “We have to make room for other people. It"s a wheel's you get on, you go to the end and someone else has the same opportunity to go to the end, and so on, and somebody else takes their place. There"s nothing new under the sun.

One has the sense that the world has just made a place for Maier and her work in a day-late-dollar-short sort of way. It"s a bittersweet recognition. And while Maier is correct that there"s nothing new under the sun's and there"s certainly nothing new about a female artist"s anonymity due to a lack of confidence's there is something wistful and true in Maier"s work. It"s worth a visit.

Vivian Maier: Photographs from the Maloof Collection

Through Jan. 28, 2012, Howard Greenberg Gallery, 41 E. 57th St., Ste. 1406, 212-334-0010, www.howardgreenberg.com.

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