Last week I finally visited the Chicago History Museum’s exhibition of Vivian Maier’s photography. If you haven’t gone, I can’t recommend it highly enough. The photographs here—which represent only a fraction of Maier’s recently unearthed collection—vividly bring to life the Chicago streets of the 60s and 70s; this room has got to be the best time machine in town. Some of the subjects are momentous: the south side just after a devastating race riot, or the police barricades at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. But even the anonymous pedestrians who make up a good part of the exhibit are revelatory. Maier was evidently a master of shallow focus, locating the inherent dignity in her human subjects in the way she made them stand out from their surroundings.
What I take away from a great exhibit like this is that photography enables the person behind the camera to live in greater awe of reality. To create compositions with the stuff of immediate experience is to intuit a sense of order in the random and overlooked. It sounds like such a presumptuous thing to do, yet there’s such humility in the work of a Vivian Maier or a Robert Capa or a Walker Evans. Their insights don’t seem imposed upon the images, but discovered inside them—and these discoveries, of course, are the result of constant searching.