New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 49 Holiday Holidays! December 18 to 31, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

What kind of nanny was she?
Vivian Maier
Self Portrait

Photo by Vivian Maier . Source: howardgreenberg.com Vivian Maier, "Self-portrait, Chicago area"

Will we ever get enough of Vivian Maier? Four years ago, few people had ever heard of this eccentric nanny who had worked for New York and Chicago families from the 1950s to the 1990s, and spent her free time taking street photographs. She never showed her pictures to anyone and probably would have remained unknown if the vast body of work she kept hidden in a storage locker hadn’t wound up at a Chicago auction house in 2007. John Maloof, an historian and collector, discovered her negatives and introduced her to the art world, which found her photographs– and her life story – captivating. Since 2010, twenty galleries in the U.S. and Europe have exhibited her work. Sadly, Maier missed all the applause because she died in 2009 at age 83.

Photo by Vivian Maier . Source: howardgreenberg.com Vivian Maier, "Self-portrait, Chicago area, October " 1975

With one book in print and a documentary just released, a new exhibit of her “selfies” at Howard Greenberg is offering yet another perspective on this mysterious, reclusive artist. (There’s also a new book edited by Maloof.) These 40 self-portraits, made between 1950 and 1976, some in color, let us see the woman behind the camera and offer an even greater appreciation of her talent. What intrigued me was the diversity of approaches Maier brought to the self-portrait genre.

Photo by Vivian Maier . Source: howardgreenberg.com Vivian Maier, "Self-portrait, Chicago area" 1956

Sure, there are unsmiling pictures of her with her Rolleiflex around her neck standing in front of various mirrors, but other images take the self-portrait into new territory. There are images of her shadow juxtaposed on other people and some just of her own shadow, a la Lee Friedlander. Was Maier at all familiar with other photographers’ work? A separate exhibition of self-portraits by other photographers in Greenberg’s South Gallery affords easy comparisons. Look at the Friedlander and Faurer hanging there and decide for yourself.

Photo by Vivian Maier . Source: howardgreenberg.com Vivian Maier, "Self-portrait"

Looking at her dour expression that’s in virtually all of her self-portraits, I wondered what kind of nanny was she? Did she smile when around her employer’s children? Why the long face? Who was she anyway? We don’t get much help from her, just more mystery. What we do get are what I call clever reflectors — her image in a Volkswagen hubcap, or her image reflected in a car’s side view mirror. They draw you closer and make you want to know more. But there isn’t anything else to see. In another photograph, she combines her shadow with what appears to be a lawn sprinkler. The 1970 self-portrait in Chicago where Maier photographs the legs of two women on a bench, with her shadow on the lower right is graphically striking and distinctive, as is the one in which she holds her Rolleiflex. You want to see more like them. And luckily for all of us, they’re here.

Vivian Maier
Self Portrait


Howard Greenberg
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Friday, November 8 to
Saturday, January 4, 2014
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