I would not presume to know, at any point during her 83 years on this planet, what Vivian Maier was thinking. But since she died in 2009, I suppose it's OK to make a leap and say that she would be made very uneasy and perhaps downright uncomfortable with all the attention that has been heaped upon her postmortem, since the discovery six months after her death of more than 100,000 photos, give or take, that she took during her prolific if altogether unheralded career as an amateur photographer. Some of them were posted on the Internet, and the hoopla began.
She was featured enough times on
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday
And now we have "Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows," a book of nearly 300 pages and almost as many photographs. But this is not piling on. Rather, this extraordinary work of research and sensitivity by Rich Cahan and Michael Williams gives us the definitive portrait of this North Shore nanny with a passion for photography and for so-called ordinary people doing ordinary things. "Maier has emerged as much more than a first-rate curiosity," Cahan and Williams write, and then go about the business of making her as close to flesh-and-blood as she will ever be.
"To better understand Maier, we tracked down everyone we could find — from the suburbs of Chicago to the slopes of the
Cahan and Williams previously collaborated on "Richard Nickel's Chicago," about the photographer/historian/preservationist who died in the wreckage of Louis Sullivan's Chicago Stock Exchange building in 1972 as he continued his passionate attempt to chronicle the destruction of our architectural masterpieces, and "Edgar Miller and the Handmade Home," focusing on the wildly creative artist who fashioned, inside and out, some of the city's most remarkable buildings. They are both fine books that deserve a place on any Chicago-related bookshelf. But here they have stepped up their game, writing with a stylish grace, as in this passage that begins one of the chapters and that the authors wisely choose to adorn the inside flap of the book jacket: "It's the start of day. Gingko leaves dot the sidewalks. Sneakers sit by the front door. Gardening gloves wait, and tomatoes ripen on the windowsill. The children are off at school as Vivian Maier surveys the world with her camera in the early-morning light."
There are other jacket-worthy passages: "At every stage of her life as an artist, she was exploring, questioning, evolving and growing … strolling the city in search of meaning." Or, "Maier's photos are unexpected in that she elevates the (
"We were both a bit skeptical at first, when we saw some of her images posted in the Internet," says Cahan. "Our friend Jeff Goldstein had purchased some 20,000 of her photos, and it took us two to three months to get our arms around everything." (This book is based on Goldstein's collection. Another collector, John Maloof, has more than 100,000 of her photos and collector Ron Slattery was the first to post her work on the Internet.)
The book is organized into nine sections. "We think of these as her personal journeys," says Williams. "She wore a camera around her neck every day, and in essence she was making with photos a journal or diary of her life."
Those sections include "America," "Beach," "Downtown" and "1968." "That was the year in which she took the most pictures," says Cahan. "And that was the year her life changed."
Never do the two authors indulge in any sort of psychobabble in an attempt to get inside Maier's head to explain why she shot what she shot. They let the photos and their research and interviews speak for themselves, and they do so hauntingly in this book.
They also do so at the ongoing Chicago History Museum exhibition titled "Vivian Maier's Chicago," where the accompanying photograph was taken. To see it is to walk through a maze of more than 38 4-by-4-foot prints that hang from cables on the ceiling, a three-dimensional attempt to get the feeling of what it must have been like to encounter, much as Maier did, the places and faces of the Loop in the 1960s and 1970s. The walls are covered with contact sheets with more than 200 photos.
The appeal of the photos and the story seem to be universal. "We have gotten orders from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Thailand," says Cahan (on the right in the photo).
Maier died broke, the contents of her storage lockers sold at auction. That she has become a sensation of the art world is a compelling tale. But, as Cahan says, "Her pictures are filled with truth, but in life she was always a mystery, and she remains so in death."
Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.
"Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows"