While we were in Los Angeles for Photo LA, we had a chance to check out the Vivian Maier exhibit, hosted at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery. The exhibit, which ran from December 17th – January 25th, featured over 90 framed photographs from the unique artist.

Vivian Maier ExhibitionVivian Maier

Vivian Maier kept her work hidden from the world and worked anonymously throughout her photographic career. Maier worked for 40 years as a nanny in Chicago, and it was during her hours off from work that she would be out photographing the people and cityscapes of Chicago. Many who knew Maier during these years only considered her a “dedicated hobbyist” (Karnowsky).


From the 1940’s to the 1970’s “Maier took more than 2,000 rolls of film, printed 3,000 photographs and produced more then 150,000 negatives representing the street life and architecture of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and the American Southwest, as well as destinations as far off as Manila, Bangkok, Beijing, Egypt and Italy” (Karnowsky). Maier died in 2009, still virtually unknown. The story of how Maier’s work became known is one of unbelievable chance. “Were it not for John Maloof’s chance discovery of hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film at a Chicago Auction in 2007, Maier’s legacy would likely have been consigned to oblivion” (Karnowsky). The story of Maier is the topic of the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier,” coming to theaters in March 2014.


The Show at Merry Karnowsky Gallery opened on December 17th  2013 and ran through January 25th. The opening reception on Saturday, January 11th was hosted by actor Tim Roth.


Most of the prints in the exhibition were 12×12 square gelatin silver prints framed in editions of 15. Prices started anywhere from $2,400 – $5,600 and went up in price as the editions sold. The square prints were a result of Maier’s early use of a medium format camera, starting with a Kodak Brownie and later using a Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex camera.


12 of the framed prints in the show were “Rare Lifetime Prints.” These rare prints which were found along with the negatives and rolls of film, are believed to have been printed by Vivian Maier or under her direction. But like much in the life of Vivian Maier, there is little to no evidence, and this cannot be proven. However, it was interesting to ponder the thought of this recluse developing these prints in some makeshift dark room in Chicago in the mid 1900’s. The price of these rare prints ranged from $10,000 – $12,000.


Most of the work in the show was black and white with the exception of 9 chromogenic color prints from the late 1970’s. During this stage of Maier’s career, her shift from the square medium format Rolleiflex to a 35mm film camera can be seen. Many of the same themes were visible, but the vivid color gave a unique feel. The color prints were also in additions of 15 and ranged in price starting at $2,400-$3,200 and went up in price as the editions sold.


The subject matter of the photographs in the show ranged from candid and posed photographs of men, women and adolescence, the homeless and disabled persons, to architecture, shadowscapes, and many self portraits often in the form of a shadow or reflection. Her photographs of people were reminiscent of work created by Diane Arbus, who was photographing in New York the same time as Maier was in Chicago. One of the most striking portraits in the show was of a young girl leaning on a car door looking at the photographer. She seems comfortable to be photographed, a testament to Maier’s ability to allow her subjects to feel at ease in her presence.


Maier’s self portraits are striking. Often in the form of a shadow or small reflection, often the camera is visible, but in some images it is undetected. Some of her self portrait work reminded me of the work of Lee Friedlander, almost hauntingly hovering over one of the subjects of her photographs.


Charlie Siskel, director of the forthcoming documentary Finding Vivian Maier , recounts the story of Vivian Maier with tender accuracy. “She had few friends, never had a family of her own, and moved from place to place,” says Siskel. “There was little that was consistent in life; the one constant was her photography. With that, she never compromised.” Watch some of Maier’s largely unseen experimentation with film below.

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