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The discovery of the so-called “undiscovered genius” is the driving narrative behind the boom in what’s come to be called outsider art over the past few decades. The notion that great art is being made unbeknownst to the powers-that-be by hospital patients, truck drivers, janitors, and neighborhood loners satisfies our wish to believe in a fully democratized community of artistic expression. Bodies of work by Martín Ramirez, Henry Darger, Charles A. A. Dellshau, and William Hawkins, to name just a few artists who have come to prominence recently, certainly do attest to the pervasiveness of the visionary impulse across class and racial lines.
This evidence may be tonic, especially within the context of the current art scene in which pricey educational credentials and the connections that follow seem all but essential to gaining recognition. But, of course, “outsiders” live up to their name. The support and benefits that might follow in the wake of a successful first show by a recent MFA graduate was never theirs. Their success is typically posthumous, which, as success goes, may be good for us; less good for them.
Vivian Maier spent some forty years working as a nanny in Chicago. When she died in 2009 at the age of eighty-three, she left behind well over a hundred thousand photographic negatives (of which she had printed a small number), evidence of decades spent wandering the streets of her hometown, as well as others cities and locales around the world. In 2007 Chicago photographer and historic preservationist John Maloof purchased a box of Maier’s negatives at auction, and this led him to discover the rest of her sizable cache of images. Intensely private, some people who knew her were surprised to learn she took pictures.
Two years ago the Howard Greenberg gallery presented a much-praised show of her street photography and many of these images were published in an book edited by Maloof. Since then her reputation has grown (more books; a documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this fall) and now this once anonymous woman with a Rollieflex strapped around her neck is increasingly regarded as a peer of masters like Gary Winogrand and Robert Frank. It is hard not to conjecture, though, what turn her life and art might have taken if she had made an effort to enter the rarified precincts of the art world when she first began taking pictures. Would she have found a place and thrived? If rejected, would she have taken the judgment to heart and abandoned her photography altogether?
While these speculations are moot, the current show at Greenberg, one devoted to Maier’s self-portraits, confirms without a doubt her own vigorous consciousness of herself as an artist — perhaps one without a gallery or publication, but no less a visionary for such deficiencies. Maier’s considerable art is not a fluke — as if she were a hobbyist whose images just happen to incorporate the aesthetic sophistication associated with professional artists. Every photograph in this show (collected in a volume just published by powerHouse Books) testifies to her acute awareness of self-portraiture’s long tradition, and particularly its more inventive (Man Ray, Parmigianino, Kahlo) permutations.
The meta quality (the photographer is almost always seen with her camera in the act of taking the shot) and obliqueness (she’s reflected in car mirrors, shop windows, or hubcaps, or seen only in shadow) that characterizes nearly all of these portraits might come across as over-determined, too earnestly artful, if not for Maier’s droll approach not only to composition, but to her own facial and bodily demeanor. Maier often affects a deadpan, somewhat distracted look, her eyes blankly regarding something just outside the photo’s frame. She is her own unwilling subject, just tolerating the intrusion of the camera she’s holding, arms akimbo, below her chest. And then there are the hats: berets, fedoras, straw, that lend her profile a rakish air, sometimes undermined by a slightly doleful expression. Maier presents herself as someone aloof and contentedly so.
In a photo taken at a Chicago beach in 1971, the photographer is visible in shadow at the bottom of the frame. A dark shape on the sand, the flat-brimmed fedora and clothed shoulder loom ominously; has a detective or gangster come to pay an unwelcome call? Maier goes tête-á-tête with her subject, a sunbather sporting a mass of curlers, to create an off-kilter symmetry that’s enhanced as much by its similarities (neither woman’s face is clearly visible, with each sporting a pronounced head adornment) as its differences (the monochromatic shadow casts a wintery specter while the summery beachgoer reclines on a striped towel in a striped swimsuit). Maier sparks narrative as well as formal drama, even as a wry wit animates the proceedings.
Parmigianino’s “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” may have been the inspiration for the image offering the photographer neatly framed in an oval mirror. (There are several such reflective ovals: some of them, the back of an auto’s rear-view, a VW hubcap, a bookshop’s theft prevention mirror that are, in fact, convex.) Taken in Anaheim, California, in 1955, this complex portrait reveals Maier as a rather young woman who is already in possession of an ambivalent mien — one guarded yet anticipatory.
The image suggests that she is shooting into a large mirror as she holds a small circular one, the kind with a stand that might be found on a dressing table; she has angled the camera so as to frame her face as a tondo, while some of her torso (she wears a prim white blouse) and her hand are visible. Well lit and sharply focused, the face emerges from what could be a dark ether; her hand is a murky presence, barely registering as such, if not for being set against the shirt’s luminescent white. This layering of focus with diverse qualities of light creates an uncertain, somewhat illegible background that permits her face an almost startling definition. Her boyish visage hovers amid her body, as if in consequence of the preternatural.
In a few images, Maier can be seen without her camera. In a 1960 shot, she broods purposely — chin in hand, beret appropriately tilted — in a snowy park. But in most of these self-portraits, the tool of her trade is unmistakably present, often vying with her face for prominence. The camera is carefully held — offered? — to the viewer as the object deserving our attention. The formality of her poses, her studied impassivity, lend an iconic note to several of these photos, as if she were seeking not to capture herself but to delineate some Platonic notion of “the photographer.” If the potential aesthetic missteps that attend this sort of self-mythologizing are numerous, Maier appears well aware of them and equally confident of her ability to avoid stumbling.
There is no coyness in these photographs; no attempt to sell a persona. Her ambition is directly conveyed, without embarrassment or emotional hedging: you understand immediately Maier as an artist because that’s how she understands herself. Decade after decade, going to work, taking care of other people’s children, another walker among city crowds cloaked in unremarkable guise, she went about her life convinced, these photographs show, of her remarkability. Maier’s genius was hardly undiscovered.
Vivian Maier: Self-Portrait continues at Howard Greenberg Gallery (41 East 57th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 4.