“LIFE IN THE QUICK”
There is a register of simple beauty and jubilation in many of the photographs of Vivian Maier—a woman’s head flung back in all-consuming laughter ;
two gentlemen in bow ties head towards a light flirtation with a pretty lady near a cigar stand;
two older twin ladies turn away from one another with identical hands raised in a sort of double-personal declaration;
rows of daisies and rows of ladies with their hats.
We sense her gentle ironies and tensions—the young man on the motorcycle stalled as an aged lady swings her walker forward to make her way across an intersection.
Yet a thread of disconcerting complexity tempered with aesthetic magnificence runs through most of her work—the mother with the cigarette menacingly close to the boy’s crying face.
There’s a film noir quality to her heady juxtaposition of light and shadow, as in the two figures mysteriously pressed behind Venetian blinds,
or the glorious shots of rather monstrous, “confrontational” Chicago buildings.
As a body of work, we encounter “life in the quick” in Chicago’s 1950s and 1960s; ladies with their stoles and ornate hats, heels and corsaged collie,
Midnight Cowboy decorates the movie placard, “men must change or die” spray-painted on a mailbox,
the uncanny juxtaposition of human sentiment and environmental decay—the laughing woman tragically foregrounding a demolition scene,
tensions between the encroaching city and the old ways of life—the hints of the primitive natural kingdom—vagabonds with their rubbish and grins, a man hovers near timber-like, rotted heap of materials,
a child pokes at a fire on the city street.
There is a sense of primitive wildness in the edges of human activity that we perhaps don’t see so blatantly anymore in the city proper.
One senses a strange spiritual energy in her work at times—a mother clasps her coat against an ominous prairie wind as she pushes a stroller filled with hay, while the displaced child walks seriously alongside, and two mysterious black spheres drift in the sky.
Top-notch portraiture of descendents clinging to one of the ancients.
STRANGERS TO MAIER, NEVERTHELESS HER ARTISTIC “ACCOMPLICES” ON THE STREET
Maier’s photographs are masterful, poetic, and feel already like classics; it’s as if a seminal book, for half a century lost, has returned to its proper place on the shelf alongside its rightful companions. It seems Maier’s work has been in a private conversation all these years with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s visual symphonies of movement:
Brassai’s seductive wedding of light and dark:
The slack and grave expressions in many of Walker Evans’ subway portraits:
Robert Frank’s alienated Americans,
Garry Winogrand’s sharp, glorious energies:
And William Eggleston’s foreboding sense of the ordinary:
Maier seemed to absorb the ethos of the so-called “Chicago School”, perhaps magically influenced by the masterful works of Barbara Crane:
and Ray Metzker.
She imbibed the spirit of the Institute of Design without actually attending the school, perhaps because shadows and light were democratically available for all to witness; in the words of Westerbeck:
“The flatness of the prairie to the west is just a mirror image of the flatness of the lake to the east; between the two, the city is perfectly cross-ventilated with light of an incomparable clarity and forcefulness, which is what the street photography of the Chicago School is really documenting.”
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Please visit our blog site again soon; next week, I will feature an interview with John Maloof, the marvelous excavator of this Maier treasure trove!
The staff at MIR Appraisal Services, Inc. seeks to fully understand the arts in their particular cultural contexts and to analyze relationships between various artistic mediums and genres; in this way we can broaden our expertise as art appraisers. We are located just steps from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Cultural Center; please do give us a ring to set up an appointment for an evaluation of your most prized works of art.
Researched and written by Jessica Savitz
Principal Appraiser: Farhad Radfar, ISA AM
307 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 308
Chicago, IL 60601
Foot notes/Works Cited:
Meyerowitz, Joel and Westerbeck, Colin. Bystanders: A History of Street Photography. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.
Scott, Clive. Street Photography from Atget to Cartier-Bresson. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007, 3.
John Maloof, from his blog: http://www.vivianmaier.blogspot.com/
 All images of Maier’s work from John Maloof’s blog, http://www.vivianmaier.blogspot.com/
 Scott, Clive. Street Photography from Atget to Cartier-Bresson. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007, 3.
 Meyerowitz, Joel and Westerbeck, Colin. Bystanders: A History of Street Photography. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994, 365.
 Ibid 372.