By now many Chicagoans have become familiar with the name Vivian Maier. The one-time nanny would never have made it into the history books, except for her hidden passion: photography. From the mid-1950s through the late 1990s Maier roamed the streets of Chicago (and other cities) photographing the indigent and rich, the young and the old – pretty much anyone who passed by her lens. But unlike other amateur shutterbugs, time and time again she took absolutely great and mesmerizing pictures.
Maier’s sharp, critical and oftentimes funny eye was only discovered about five years ago, when tens of thousands of her images (negatives, undeveloped film, prints) were sold at auction. One of the buyers was John Maloof, and he, along with Jeff Goldstein, have since become the curators and archivist of Maier’s legacy, acquiring negatives from other purchasers and disseminating her work around the world.
The re-discovery of Maier is a multimedia affair: A book of her work has been published and a documentary is in the works. There’ve been multiple exhibitions of her work in Europe and the U.S., including two in Chicago. But now even more Maier is on display, in a show of her original prints at local gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey.
John Corbett and Jim Dempsey acquired the prints from another buyer, and they suspect many of the snapshot sized images might have been printed by Maier and others in a “bathtub.” Dempsey thinks that owes to the reduced circumstances of Maier’s later years. While it might sound like he’s furthering the speculation around a still-mysterious figure, Dempsey actually has grounds for his insights: He knew her.
Dempsey and Maier first met around 1988, when he was house manager at the old Film Center, on the Columbus Avenue side of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “I remember her distinctly, she was quite a character," Dempsey recalled. "She always wore this sort of floppy, felt fedora. She wore a men’s suit jacket, a skirt, patent leather shoes and saggy stockings." Dempsey also recollected Maier's "thick kind of Austrian-French accent."
"Somehow with that accent and severe personality we nicknamed her Frau Blucker," he explained. "She reminded me of the Cloris Leachman character in Young Frankenstein.”
Many of the Film Center staff avoided Maier, but Dempsey talked to her a lot, maybe once a week for ten years. Still, even though she took his photo, he knew nothing about her past until others discovered Maier’s treasure trove of prints. Now he’s rethinking his relationship with Maier, and her work.
“A lot of times if you see a modern contact sheet, they might circle two or three of the good photos and the others are considered not as good,” said Dempsey. “When you look at her contact sheets and her negatives you don’t see any duds – it seemed like every time she clicked she was hitting a home run.”
Dempsey and Corbett’s acquisition also includes some of Maier’s negative strips and ring binders with notes, which provide insight into her process. “She would write something like ‘Take photo. Wait 14 seconds. Take another photo,' " Dempsey said. "She was just setting up ways and systems for her to take these shots, as opposed to running up and trying to design something in her head."
Corbett considers her approach very contemporary. “She’s decided what the interval will be while she’s taking images," he explained, "because she knows that she’ll surprise herself, by taking a photograph she hadn’t intended to take.”
Compared to street photographers like Cartier Bresson, Corbett said, “There’s a lot less motion in her work. [Maier] captures these still moments that pass quickly. Sometimes they’re very funny. Sometimes they’re poignant. Sometimes they’re very sad.”
Images recur: of children peering through windows, and of vagrants, asleep on benches or the ground. They decided to show “quite of few” of the latter images, what Corbett bluntly calls “sleeping bums,” even though such work in the wrong hands could come across as “predatory.” Not so in Maier’s case.
“She’s doing all of this at the same time Studs Terkel is doing his ethnographic work here in Chicago, which I think has a similarity," Corbett said. "It’s very sympathetic to the subject. But it’s also very stark and realistic, so she’s not trying to paint it over with pretty colors.” Of a portrait of one indigent man, shot in close-up, Corbett noted, “He wouldn’t be proud perhaps, looking at an image of himself with his shirt buttoned wrong. But it’s the reality.”
So the themes and interests one sees in Maier's images – homelessness, vagrancy, a sense of being untethered or lacking connection to others – match the ideas that Dempsey had projected on the photographer in their conversations at the Film Center. And though he said she didn’t come across as a “warm person” she clearly knew how to connect with people.
“She had this strange ability to fit in with whatever scenario," Dempsey explained. "Someone pulling out a camera, pointing it at that gentleman, most people could be a threat. He looks very calm and stoic in a way. You can tell she’s not looking down at him, she’s trying to capture a little bit of who he is. And I think he can feel that and thus doesn’t seem to be threatened in any way.”
As for the photograph Maier took of Dempsey, it hasn’t yet shown up, though he’d “be excited if it did.” To see some of her other images, head to Corbett vs. Dempsey, at 1120 N. Ashland Avenue, near the intersection of Milwaukee and Division. Vivian Maier: Vintage Prints runs through July 21st.
My full interview with Jim Dempsey and John Corbett