Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams

Every time I read a book, there is someone to thank. The author obviously and whoever helped get the book published. Right now, however, I am thinking about librarians, and in this case, Matthew at my library. He added an outstanding book, Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows to our photography collection. Before I saw the book on display, I had never heard of Maier, but the jacket caught my eye. The book went home with me to sit on a shelf for a couple of weeks before I finally opened it. Then I devoted much of a day off to reading and examining the photographs.

Hardly anyone had heard of Vivian Maier when she died in 2009, but the wheels of fame had started to roll in 2007 when her abandoned prints, negatives, and over 1,000 rolls of undeveloped film were auctioned in Chicago. She spent over fifty years as a nanny, housekeeper, and caregiver for the infirm, mostly in the northern Chicago suburbs, at every opportunity taking black and white photographs with her old Rolleiflex camera. Her early images focused on children and suburban life, but she began to catch commuter trains and wander the city. She documented downtown Chicago, Maxwell Street, and Skid Row through several decades, and even captured the protesters in Grant Park before the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Restrained by her finances, Maier rarely wasted a shot. Experts now praise her work both for its artistry and for its documenting decades of city experience. Seen as a body of work, it could be called her diary, but she rarely photographed herself. In her younger days, she traveled the world, but much of this book reflects life in Chicago.

As a nanny who would take children on adventures into poor parts of the city, Vivian Maier is compared with Mary Poppins. As a very private soul whose prolific work has only been revealed after her death, she is compared with Emily Dickinson. Much about her is still not really known. This excellent collection introduces her and leaves us wanting more.

Cahan, Richard and Michael Williams. Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows. Cityfiles Press, 2012. 287p. ISBN 9780978545093.

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