- Deanna Isaacs
- Vivian Maier photos at Art Center Highland Park
When I talked with photographer and Northwestern University faculty member Pamela Bannos for a column earlier this spring about posthumously famous local photographer Vivian Maier, Bannos told me something surprising: that Maier’s best work may have already been behind her when she moved to Chicago in the mid-1950s.
From what she’s been able to see of Maier’s massive body of work, Bannos said, the stunning street photography, which established her style, was mostly done in New York.
“Vivian Maier: A Photographic Journey,” an exhibit that opened Saturday at the Art Center Highland Park, brought that opinion to mind.
Drawn from the collection of Jeffrey Goldstein, one of two major owners of her work, this show is the first in the North Shore suburbs, where Maier worked as a nanny in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Its focus is on the photos she took on the playgrounds of Highland Park, the beaches of Wilmette, and the streets of Chicago, where, in an example that looks more like her New York work, she caught a resplendent elder—the “Woman With Pearls”—in the glare of a late afternoon sun, a landmark clock ticking behind her.
Clocks, newspapers, mirrors, cars, and kids appear frequently in the suburban photos—the children falling into handsome patterns as they skip rocks on Lake Michigan, cluster around a lemonade stand, or help dad wash a gloriously finned midcentury auto. But Maier’s take on this American Dream-land is never safe or sweet. Her “Boys on the Beach,” for instance, shot in pristine 1960s Wilmette, could be a poster for Death in Venice.
And she doesn’t need the kids for impact. “Bobby Dies,” a still life composed of a newspaper headline, a table lamp, and the slats and shadows of a window shade, is as emotionally charged as any image in the show.
The most poignant item in the exhibit, however, isn’t a photograph. It’s a three-word note on a processing order for a single print, that’s really a plea from Maier (who mostly did not have her own dark room) to the anonymous workers in a drug store photo lab: “Good work appreciated.”
She’s getting some fine printing now (though whether it’s exactly what she would have wanted is a subject of discussion). And the 44 local images in this show will resonate for anyone who frequented those suburban beaches and Chicago streets when Maier did.
But are these chilly views of the North Shore as good as what she captured on the visually richer streets of New York City? It may be a function of what was available to Maier here and there, but I’m thinking Bannos is right. You can judge for yourself: some of Maier’s New York photos can be viewed on Goldstein’s website, and in Richard Cahan and Michael Williams’ book, Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows. And there’s a larger number on the website of her other major collector, John Maloof, and in his book, Vivian Maier, Street Photographer.
“Vivian Maier: A Photographic Journey” runs through July 12 at the Art Center Highland Park.
The College of DuPage also opened a Maier exhibit drawn from the Goldstein collection last weekend. “Vivian Maier Exposed” runs through August 16 at the school’s Cleve Carney Art Gallery. It includes images from two hundred rolls of Maier’s film that were developed by students at the college, under the guidance of Frank Jackowiak.