Art review: Vivian Maier at Stephen Cohen


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Even without its dramatic discovery story, the work of Vivian Maier would come as something of a revelation. Maier’s photographs, made primarily on the streets of Chicago and New York from the 1950s on, are characterized by a crisp formal intelligence, a vivid sense of humor and a keen grasp of the serendipitous choreography of daily life. Both the curious and the ordinary caught her eye and became interchangeable.

In one picture in her engrossing show at Stephen Cohen, a street corner trashcan stands midway between our befuddled gaze and a bystander’s. Filled to the rim with light bulbs, like a public repository for expired ideas, the wastebasket doubles as felicitous fact and found metaphor. In another picture, also shot in Chicago in 1968, the newspaper in a businessman’s hands splays outward, seeming to merge with the signage and reflections on the shop window behind him. Implicit title: Portrait of an Everyman at the epicenter of his own private urban whirl.


Not all of the 45 black and white images on view are brilliant, but each one is sensitive and visually acute. Cumulatively, they make a convincing case for Maier’s significance as a mid-century street photographer. And there are 100,000 more. Maier photographed on her time off from work as a nanny, and apparently never showed the pictures to anyone. She put them (black and white and color pictures and hundreds of undeveloped rolls of film) in storage, and the contents of her locker were auctioned off for nonpayment a few years before her death in 2009. The treasure trove of an archive is split between two collectors who are making new prints, like these, from the old negatives. Quite a story, fabulously illustrated.

-- Leah Ollman

Stephen Cohen Gallery, 7358 Beverly Blvd., (323) 937-5525, through Nov. 12. Closed Sunday and Monday.