Get to know Vivian Maier at the Chicago History Museum

Vivian Maier is the grand master of people watchers of the world. Her photographs are enticing and snapshots of the captured emotions of quiet contemplation, distress, and revelation. Her impeccable moments are images of the faces of every Chicagoan yesterday and today. As Richard Cahan, the author of the companion piece Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows said, “The Vivian Maier exhibit is for the people to who have come to see the people.”

At the member’s opening reception on September 11th,  Cahan spoke to the attendants about his experiences with Maier’s Highland Park nanny family, the Gensbergs and his travels looking for the history of Maier in France with Jeff Goldstein, the donor of the photographs to the Chicago History Museum.  In the small French towns, they met with the group the Friends Of Vivian Maier, who helped them come in contact with elderly gentlemen and women in their late 70s to early 80s who remember Maier. Many of these people were children when Maier took their photographs in late 1940s and early 50s. For some, it was the only photographs from their childhood and seeing it again brought back so many memories.

Maier’s photographs are her emotions caught on another human’s face. What she feels, how she reacts, and what she thinks are all captured in a single second. Her photographs were private and as Cahan states, “A type of diary.” What the audience sees, is her escape and her self-expression in her photographs. The Chicago History Museum’s Tamara Biggs, along with  author, Richard Cahan, and exhibit developer, Alan Teller give Maier’s photographs a sense of identity. We see people, but we see the true Maier too.

The exhibit itself has two pathways. The inner part of room is mostly faces Maier shot. Many simply ooze with feelings; there is no other way to describe it. The developers have designed the exhibit, so the visitor is meandering through a crowd of people in the Loop or on Michigan Avenue. As you walk, you see those captured moments Maier so thoughtfully took in such an artful yet unbeknownst manner. Her photographs are accessible and many it seems that the person in the photograph is your second cousins friend’s grandmother even though, in reality that person you know can not be the subject. It’s Maier’s connection with the human face that gives this exhibit a historical and artistic identity in a museum where history reigns supreme.

Make sure to look under the photographs and through the slits you will find an even more rewarding experience!

The second pathway is the wainscoting that runs along the outside wall. The pictures are displayed as camera rolls with twelve pictures in each set.  The visitor sees her thought process and how her emotions of that day. Each set of twelve shows happiness, contemplation, or amazement. Look closely!

The truly amazing fact is that the developers were able to work together in such a short amount of time. The project began in May 2012 and opened in September 2012. When interviewed  Teller and  Biggs both agreed that the “fabulousness” of the exhibit is due to “no egos and the accepting of ideas.”

In the end, Maier’s legacy resonates in her photographs, in the faces she captured, and her ability to find the familiarity of human emotions that we all possess. Maier’s private diary of photos never shown before now is a remarkable addition to the art world. When asked if Maier would enjoy the exhibit or hate it, Kahan commented, “He did not know, but she would appreciate the work, but not the attention. She was always asking about someone else.” There is the true Vivian Maier.




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