There has been an enormous fuss about the trove of negatives discovered in the storage lockers of a reclusive nanny and apparently prolific photographer, Vivian Maier, who died in 2009. Several proprietors are engaged in a struggle over provenance; predictable land grabs and lawsuits have ensued. For those more interested in the images and/or Maier’s curious story, the struggle has been to get her work shown. That is what local photographer Karin Rosenthal and Susan Eisenberg, Scholar in the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham, have accomplished in bringing an exhibit of 35 of Maier’s works to the gallery there.
It is only natural to ask, are Maier’s photographs actually praiseworthy or have people been overly captivated by the mystery and intrigue of her story? Are the proprietors, who have much to gain, attempting to trump up the value of their holdings? Does the Emperor have clothes?
In a word, yes. Although Brandeis is showing only a tiny portion of her work, estimated at over 150,000 negatives and undeveloped film, it is possible to sense a unique and valuable voice in it. The prints in this show display a remarkable lack of tonal range and density, casting some doubt on the quality of Maier’s negatives, but the images themselves are laudable.
What they reveal is an inexhaustibly curious spirit, sensitive humanism and wry sense of humor. Maier’s body of work can be roughly divided in two: street photography and self-portraits. By all accounts an intensely private person, she rendered herself nearly invisible, or at the least non-threatening, and got herself close enough to capture such personal moments as a couple’s lovingly clasped hands or an unhinged child clutching an unseen adult. Layered over this is Maier’s engaging experimentation with framing and pattern repetition. Above all, her street photographs focus on the moments, gestures and nuances that make us all human.
Not so her self-portraits, which some consider her stronger work. I found them compelling but rather uneven and as enigmatic as Maier herself. Well-composed and often clever, they show Maier’s penchant for investigation with reflective surfaces and inventive uses of her shadow. And like her, they offer only elusive and rather dependably un-emotive views of the photographer. What was she up to? Maier’s photographs certainly capture the imagination, allow plenty of room for interpretation and whet the appetite. And I’ll bite, I’d be curious to see lots more of her work.
This exhibit will be at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA for only one more week, through December 18, 2013.