“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” – Elliott Erwitt
Between now and January 28 2015 Foam is hosting an exhibition featuring the outstanding work of street photographer, Vivian Maier. I’m something of an obsessive when it comes to this particular genre, and this was one of the best shows I’ve seen at Foam. This opinion is of course entirely subjective, but what cannot be denied is how compelling the story behind both the exhibition, and the photographer herself, is.
Vivian Maier was an incredibly prolific photographer, who captured life not only on the streets of Chicago and New York between the fifties and seventies, but also in places as far from her native country as Yemen, Shanghai and Bangkok. However, she never shared her work and it was not discovered until a trunk of negatives and film rolls was bought by John Maloof at an auction of repossessed storage lockers. Maloof was hoping to find photographs of Chicago for another project he was working on; what he ended up with was more than 100,000 negatives, countless rolls of undeveloped film, motion pictures and audio recordings, which together paint a picture of a talented artist, an intelligent and witty commentator and a fascinating, somewhat eccentric human being. There is so much to learn about her, and I highly recommend watching the documentary, ‘Finding Vivian Maier’ which provides much more of this interesting story and some excellent background to the exhibition.
The collection being shown at Foam is not all that large, but every image could stand as a piece of art on its own. Powerful large format portraits, taken from below while the subjects appear to look straight at the photographer are shown alongside striking, and often heart breaking images of Chicago and New York’s disaffected. Maier also managed to communicate a sense of humour through her pictures; we see small children mid-wail, their faces contorted and tear stained, images which become amusing when you consider that her usual occupation was that of ‘nanny’. Her habit of capturing her own reflection or shadow to produce a number of unusual ‘self portraits’, several of which have been included here, also provides us with the iconic image of her uniform of heavy coats, wide skirts and stiff felt hats.
There’s been a lot of discussion over what Vivian Maier would make of all the attention that her work has garnered or whether Maloof has the right to curate it, and of course we will never know as she died before it became public. What is certain is Maier was an incredible photographer who ranks easily, as far as many are concerned, among greats like Robert Frank, Elliott Erwitt, Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus. Photography fan or not, you can’t fail to feel some reaction to these images and be intrigued by her story. I would urge everyone to catch this exhibition while we’re lucky enough to have it here.
Get the tickets to the museum online and save yourself some trouble at the entrance.