In some ways, Vivian Maier’s photography prefigured some of today’s most common Instagram tropes: there’s her early experiments with the mirror selfie; her subjects are only those things she encountered every day; and she was, to all intents and purposes, an amateur.
To make a more simplistic comparison between Maier and Instagram, many of the images currently on show at MK Gallery’s show Vivian Maier: Anthology are framed in neat squares. But, obviously, there’s so much more to her images and the story of her life and work than this.
Maier died in 2009 aged 83 and took an astonishing number of pictures during her lifetime — more than 150,000 photos, as well as Super 8 and 16mm films, prints, audio tapes, and reams of undeveloped film — yet her work was only discovered in 2007 when her innumerable negatives were discovered in a Chicago storage locker and sold at auction.
Born in Chicago, Maier spent more than 40 years working as a nanny in her home city and in New York, and according to MK Gallery the children she cared for dubbed her a “real-life Mary Poppins”. As such, many of her photos feature kids: sometimes just their legs and shoes, holding hands with a figure who is otherwise unseen above the knee; at others, they’re standing next to the photographer as she shoots their reflection in a window.
As her self-portraits show, Maier was rarely without her Rolleiflex camera, with which she shot images that in today’s language could be described as street photography, and which also offer a window into both Maier’s quotidian reality as well as a glimpse of what New York and Chicago were really like, unposed and unpolished, in the mid to late 20th century.
Her lens captures people from all walks of life, from homeless people to commuters, families and glammed up housewives; as well as shopfronts, arcades, discarded smouldering furniture; knotted electrical cables and other everyday detritus which becomes almost magical through Maier’s depictions. Clearly a natural photographer despite being totally anonymous for most of her life, many of Maier’s images play with unusual perspectives, shadows, aerial shots and reflections, revealing an innate talent far beyond any notions of being a ‘part time hobbyist’.
The bulk of Maier’s images were shot in the 1950s and 60s, and feature a mixture of surreal snapshots of street life, architecture, relationships, everyday interactions and portraiture — both of herself and of others. The exhibition at MK Gallery includes more than 140 black and white and colour photographs, as well as film and audio, aiming to reveal the breadth of Maier’s work “and her fascination for observing and recording everyday life”, according to the gallery.
Anthony Spira, Director of MK Gallery, said: “Vivian Maier’s story is an extraordinary one. The nanny who lived secretly as a world-class photographer whose remarkable work remained virtually unknown in her lifetime is now hailed as one of the greatest recorders of American life in the 20th Century, cementing her place in the history of photography alongside Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus, and Robert Frank.”