In the fall of 1972, the landlord of a Chicago apartment building entered the second-floor room of an elderly tenant named Henry Darger. Recently hospitalized, Darger was a recluse who had worked much of his life as a custodian and dishwasher. As far as anyone knew, Darger was a nobody who collected trash from the street and kept to himself. What the landlord found in Darger's living space was shocking: Amid piles and piles of old newspapers, magazines, and bottles was a 15,000-page novel, in 15 volumes and with some 300 intricate illustrations, that detailed an epic war between a group of girls and a race of humans intent on enslaving them.
The art and literary establishments were soon transfixed by Darger's work. Major exhibits at art museums and galleries ensued. Books were published. Films were made. Darger, who died soon after his landlord discovered his work, became one of the greatest "outsider artists" ever to become posthumously famous.
But now there's Vivian Maier. Like Darger, Maier was a hoarder in the Chicago area who had problems getting along with other adults. Like Darger, Maier was obsessed with her artwork — in Maier's case, photography, which led her to take more than 100,000 images of people and things in the street, beginning in the late 1940s. All her life, Maier worked as a nanny, and hid her undeveloped images in boxes. Only after a Chicago real estate agent, John Maloof, bought the contents of Maier's container at a storage-facility auction in 2007 were Maier's photos brought to public attention, initially on the Internet. Like Darger, Maier, who passed away in 2009, died without any critical recognition of her artistic talent. But she's now the most famous outsider artist who ever picked up a camera, and is the subject of new books, documentaries, and exhibits around the world.
In San Francisco, Scott Nichols Gallery is showcasing a select group of Maier's photos in a show called "Vivian Maier: Out Of The Shadows," which coincides with a movie, Finding Vivian Maier, that has screened in San Francisco for weeks.
The question: Does Maier really deserve all the attention she's getting? The answer is yes and no.
Let's start with Maier's photos, which are riveting narratives of the hustle and bustle of street life in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, when — depending on the neighborhood — Maier found kids playing on the sidewalk, elderly couples walking arm in arm, the homeless lying on a curb, and members of high society arriving at a big event. Maier didn't luck into a few good images. The vast majority of her available photos are transfixing, and she got them all by walking the streets with her Rolleiflex cameras and getting as close as possible to complete strangers. Many didn't realize they were being photographed. Others saw Maier and stared at her with suspicion. Maier braved dirty looks and skeptical eyes to get what she wanted: street improv, with heightened senses distilled by Maier's eye for striking subjects, framing, and juxtapositions.
Fans of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, and Henri Cartier-Bresson will fall deeply for Maier's photos, and they will wonder why Maier wanted to stay anonymous all her life. The question is especially vexing in the year 2014, when so many people have cameras and share every photo they can on social media. The mystery behind Maier's life is what helps make her work even more compelling and worth understanding. Through interviews with people who knew Maier, Finding Vivian Maier (which Maloof co-wrote, co-directed, and narrates) suggests that Maier was sexually abused in her youth, and that her compunction to seek out seedier sides of Chicago, New York (where she once lived), and other cities was Maier working out her childhood trauma through her camera. Darger also had unresolved issues with abuse, his biographers suggest. The parallels between the two are eerie.
Still, it's worth asking — as it is with every artist — whether knowing their personal history is essential to understanding their art. And with Maier, the answer has to be yes.
What I say no to are the hundreds of self-portraits that Maier took, some of which are on display at Scott Nichols Gallery. Maier's multitude of self-images are the weak link in the photographic narrative that is captured in "Vivian Maier: Out Of The Shadows" and Finding Vivian Maier. Maier was at her photographic best when she paid attention to other people, like the blind musician in Chicago playing before a store near two young kids. The photo's composition and clashing elements are unforgettable. Her volume of self-portraits, on the other hand, is narcissistic and repetitive. They weigh down her portfolio but still don't undermine the inescapable conclusion that Maier — an amateur photographer for all intents and purposes — was a master street artist.
Though Maloof says that the art world's most august institutions, like New York's Museum of Modern Art, rejected Maier's photos when he offered them for exhibit, Maier has already ascended to lofty heights in that world, with exhibits this year in France, Belgium, Sweden, and the United States, and praise from iconic photographers like Mary Ellen Mark, who says that, in terms of photographic talent, "She had it all."
Maier was a puzzle. Bitter in old age and (like Darger) possibly mentally ill, she abused some of the kids she nannied, yelled at people in the street, and went through garbage cans to find food. During the height of her photography in the 1960s and '70s, she saved stacks of old newspapers, and seemed paranoid about anyone discovering her trove of photos and audio and film (and receipts and papers and everything else), keeping locks on the doors of her rooms where she was a live-in nanny. Maier never seriously tried to get her work published.
Maloof says he became obsessed with solving the mystery of Maier. Maier was fortunate that Maloof happen to bid on her hoarded archive (he bought his initial collection for all of $380). Maier's photos were waiting to be discovered, but they could have easily remained unsold and then destroyed. There will be more Vivian Maiers and Henry Dargers — incredible artists who don't find (or even seek out) a place in the art world during their lifetimes. The hope is that, in these media-saturated times, more of them come to public attention.