A journalist discovered, undercovered: Vivian Maier

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Vivian Maier in a self-portrait. Photo courtesy of the Jeffrey Goldstein collection.

The most mind-blowing fact about Vivian Maier isn’t that she managed to shoot more than 120,000 photos while supporting herself a nanny. Or that the families for which she worked had little clue about her double life. Or even that she often took her charges into rough Chicago neighborhoods while she captured intimate images of life on the street. What’s hardest to comprehend is that she acquired such an exquisite sense of composition while never seeing most of her shots, which were discovered as undeveloped negatives shortly before her death in 2009 at the age of 83.

Now Maier’s vast and breathtaking body of work is coming into view via photography books, documentaries, and exhibitions like See All About It: Vivian Maier’s Newspaper Portraits at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s newly endowed and just-christened Reva and David Logan Gallery of Documentary Photography in North Gate Hall. Featuring 23 beautifully printed photos drawn from the Jeffrey Goldstein Collection, the exhibition officially opens Wednesday April 2 with a late afternoon reception and lecture by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams, authors of Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows (the show remains on view through May 1).

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A man reading the newspaper. Photo by Vivian Maier. Courtesy of the Jeffrey Goldstein collection.

Born in New York City to French parents and raised by her mother in a small village in the French Alps until 1938, Maier often let people believe that she was French. An obsessively private person, she cultivated a sense of mystery. According to interviews with shopkeepers in the fascinating feature documentary Finding Vivian Maier, which opens at Shattuck Berkeley on April 11, she often refused to give her name when requesting to put some item on hold.

Directed by Los Angeles filmmaker Charlie Siskel and Chicago’s John Maloof (who discovered her negatives and owns a large percentage of them), Finding Vivian Maier makes effective use of the vast trove of materials she left behind, including audio tapes of her conducting impromptu interviews about current events, Super 8 film she shot, receipts on which she spelled her name with every possible permutation (Mayer, Meyer, Meyers), and stacks of newspapers. Today we’d recognize that she was a hoarder who filled her rooms and storage spaces until they were almost impassable, and she pursued photography in a similarly relentless spirit.


“Just the idea of taking all the photos in the first place, chronicling and collecting the images, can be seen as a kind of hoarding,” Siskel says.  “But the idea that she was a recluse or introvert is 1980 degrees incorrect. She was very funny, engaging, and talkative, a great conversationalist with the people she choose to engage with. Vivian was always interested in politics and social issues, race, class, gender, and inequality. And she was incredibly attuned to the experience of children.”

Like those who seek the “true” author of Shakespeare’s plays, refusing to believe that a lowborn man from the countryside could attain such widespread erudition, Maier’s extraordinary sense of composition begs for an explanation. The award-winning BBC documentary The Vivian Maier Mystery takes pains to uncover how she required her craft, but as the title suggests finds little to explain Maier’s exceptional eye.

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A woman reads the newspaper. Photo by Vivian Maier. Courtesy of the Jeffrey Goldstein collection.

“She appears to have been entirely self-taught,” writes Vivian Maier Mystery director Jill Nicholls in an e-mail.  “A studio photographer, Jeanne Bertrand, did live with Vivian and her mother in the Bronx, but Vivian was only four at the time! Pamela Bannos, an American academic whom we feature, thought she had connected Vivian Maier to Lisette Model, who taught photography in New York. But that trail went cold. We do know that she read the photography magazines of her day. And we came across three photographs that Vivian took of the artist Salvador Dali outside MOMA in New York in 1952.  It seems likely that she went into MOMA that day and saw the show that was on. It was of contemporary French photojournalists, including Cartier Bresson, Brassaï and Doisneau. Much of her work is in that great tradition – yet it is entirely her own. Her pictures are ‘on the wing’ but the framing is remarkable. You feel you are at a ‘still point in the turning world’ that makes her portraits immensely moving.”

See All About It at North Gate captures Maier’s abiding interest in current events, a focus that seems to narrow as America threatened to break apart in 1968. She has a penchant for street still lifes of discarded newspapers, like an image of a trash can containing the Chicago Sun-Times during the riotous Democratic convention with the headline “Dems Recess in an Uproar” and a Chicago Daily News headline about Robert Kennedy’s assassination. The most striking image captures a perfectly coifed woman who looks like she’s coming from the opera, her face half obscured by a splayed edition of the Wall Street Journal, which dominates the shot. Her black-gloved hand, adorned with numerous expensive-looking rings, curls around the side of the paper.

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Newspaper delivery bike. Photo by Vivian Maier. Courtesy of the Jeffrey Goldstein collection.

The exhibition is the latest coup for Ken Light, a Cal professor of photojournalism since 1983 (full disclosure: I’ve often guest lectured in Light’s course “The Journalist as Freelancer” and have taught several classes at the J-School). Considering Berkeley’s rich history as a center for photography — which includes Peter Stackpole, Richard Misrach, and Dorothea Lange, who lived half a mile from North Gate up Euclid — the city’s lack of a major gallery was glaring. With a gift from Susie Tompkins Buell he was able turn North Gate hallways into an exhibition space and bring in shows by masters such as Susan Meiselas, Sebastião Salgado, and Eugene Richards. The inaugural exhibition of photos by Wayne Miller jump started interest in his work, and led to a book by UC Press that sold out a run of 10,000.


See All About It flows from Light’s long relationship with the late David Logan and his son Jonathan, which has facilitated the transfer of David Logan’s large collection of rare photography books to Bancroft Library. A $3.1 million Logan family bequest has established a chaired professorship and funding that enables North Gate to remain a regular venue for exhibitions. He recalls hearing the early Internet buzz as images by Maier started to surface on-line in 2007.

“My first thought was how good can it be?” says Light, whose exhibition Physical Labor: Photographs of Workers opens next week at the University of Texas at Dallas. “Then you start looking and the magnitude and numbers of her work, it’s staggering. I’ve seen two of the books, and the most recent one is huge with picture after picture. It’s not like there are 25 great pictures. It’s endless, and there’s still a lot that’s undiscovered.”

Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. He lives in West Berkeley.

Related:
Richard Misrach: Photographing beauty can be tricky (11.19.13)
Local boy gets to shoot 2 bay bridges under construction (07.18.13)

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