Vivian Maier

Anthology

Exhibition review by Mark Durden

Vivian Maier, the reclusive photographer who made her living as a nanny, has become a fantasy figure for curators and photographers to imagine and shape as they want, argues Mark Durden in response to Anthology, the recent MK Gallery exhibition in Milton Keynes.


The story of Vivian Maier’s discovery and posthumous fame is fantastic. So much so that the trickster artist Joan Fontcuberta, in one of his recent public talks, mischievously said he had created her and asked an historian in Chicago to create the context for her work. He was joking of course.

The work of this reclusive photographer, who made her living as a nanny, came to light when the contents of a storage space she defaulted on was auctioned off in 2007, a couple of years before her death. She has subsequently become, as Fontcuberta suggests, a Mary Poppins figure whose Aladdin’s cave of photographic treasures feeds our desires and fantasies, which in the case of the exhibition Anthology, at the MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, seem to be centred upon the lost art of street photography.

The Chicago historian John Maloof was one of the buyers of Maier’s possessions and subsequently has been integral to the promotion and celebration of her photographic work – he now owns 90% of her output, over 140,000 images as well as 8mm film and audio recordings. It is from this collection this show is drawn – with over 140 photographs it makes quite a substantial exhibition, but at the same time represents a mere thousandth of the mass of photographs she left behind. With much of the exhibition given over to her black and white square format street pictures of New York and Chicago in the 1950s, she is being hyped as a new addition to an old school. Her black and white pictures are both new, in the sense they have not been seen before, and old in that they mark a past moment that we cannot really have again.

The show runs through the familiar array of street photography type subject matter – both observed and unobserved depictions of the carnival of different folk encountered in urban spaces. The picture of two elderly men crouched in contemplation over a coil of piping on a rainy sidewalk introduces the street photographer’s love of the surreal comedies of seemingly inexplicable witnessed events. The photograph of the still smoking remains of a burnt-out armchair on the sidewalk is of similar ilk, a beautiful mysterious incident. There is also the isolation of significant gestures and details, the tender touch of a couple holding hands, secretly observed from behind. The Rolleiflex camera held at waist height and into which she would look down into its viewfinder, was ideal for such surreptitious glimpses.

Maier can be astute in her picturing of the tensions and contradictions of conflict, as in the photograph entitled Armenian Woman Fighting (1956), which shows a stout older woman standing firm and defiant before a young police officer on the street in New York. The picture concentrates us on an intimacy despite their confrontation through the way his hands can be seen tightly gripping one of hers, as he tries to calm her. And there is a great image of disdain before wealth with a photograph of a woman, adorned and wrapped with two dead mink, the creature’s faces and claws all too visible and making a jarring contrast to her carefully refined self-image.  

Maier was not naïve. She was an avid film goer, both mainstream and avant-garde. A footnote in the recent Thames & Hudson monograph on Vivian Maier refers to how a house manager at a Chicago movie theatre said she even took an interest in Andy Warhol’s films. There is a certain Warholian aspect to her witty play with selfhood in her self-portraits, which are not revelatory but deadpan, blank and affectless. Perhaps one can also see her fascination for news stories and newspapers in relation to Warhol. Amongst the black-and-white street photographs, there is a remarkable and unusual close-up picture of the sides of two stacked newspapers – stuttering repetitions of photo images showing serious looking men in one stack, recurring Snoopy cartoon captions for laughter in the other: HA HA HA HA HA!. As one of her employers has recounted in Maloof’s documentary film about the photographer, Finding Vivian Maier (2013), she became an obsessive hoarder of copies of The New York Times, which she read daily and also photographed.

The opening wall text at the MK Gallery declares that this ‘self-taught artist’ now belongs to the canon of photographers alongside Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt and Garry Winogrand. This is all very well and good, but what really separates her work from those she is compared with, what makes it distinct? The self-portraits begin to signal a break from this street tradition as does her attention and fascination with newspapers, but the show does not make enough of her newspaper photographs and neither does it really emphasise enough the oddity of her self-portraits. The MK Gallery does however register the shift in her work as she started to use the Leica camera and colour film in the 1970s. Here one can find something different and less familiar. Her pictures and picturing are more layered and complex. In a photograph taken in an art museum, she plays upon the subtle interconnections between a smartly dressed woman and two girls and the painted portraits behind them. One child stands apart, rapt in attention, presumably captivated with the strange figure that Maier must have made as she took the picture. In an unusual self-portrait, her shadow and that of another figure is played off against and amongst different images on movie posters, with her shadow overlaying the image of an angel from the film Heaven Can Wait (1978), which is next to the image of an endangered female water skier on a Jaws 2 (1978) poster. And in a display of mirrors etched with the faces of stars, her hatted reflection appears over the face of Marilyn Monroe.

In a few colour photographs, the cropping and cutting of images provides her with a distinctive pictorial strategy. In the close-up of a newspaper, the rack’s Chicago Tribune sign cuts up the face of Nixon as we ponder the absurdity of his headline quote ‘Bombs saved lives’. In her picture of a suited African-American standing before her, she deliberately crops out his head, which draws attention to the way he is holding out a printed copy of The Last Messenger (1979), bearing a portrait of the face of the religious leader Elijah Mohammad.

With the last colour photograph included in the show, dated 1986, Maier has taken her ultimate self-portrait by photographing just her red hat and blue coat spread out on wooden decking. It seems a very knowing image. It beautifully suits what she has now become: a hollow figure to be taken up and reinvented again and again. Fontcuberta’s claim to have created her is then probably not that far from the truth. She is a fiction in that she has become a fantasy figure for curators and photographers to imagine and shape as they want. The problem with the MK Gallery show is a question of how Maier’s work has been filtered. By delimiting her work to more familiar and populist street photography modes, we are in danger of losing all that is weird, rich and complex among the extraordinary mass of images she has left us.  

All images courtesy Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York © Vivian Maier.

Vivian Maier: Anthology ran at MK Gallery, Milton Keynes from 11 June – 25 September 2022.

Mark Durden is a writer, artist and academic. Together with David Campbell and Ian Brown, he works as part of the art group Common Culture. Since 2017, Durden has worked collaboratively with João Leal in photographing modernist European architecture, beginning with Álvaro Siza. He is currently Professor of Photography and Director of the European Centre for Documentary Research at the University of South Wales, Cardiff.

Images:

1-Vivian Maier, Self-portrait, New York, 1953 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

2-Vivian Maier, 18 September, 1962 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

3- Vivian Maier, New York, 3 September, 1954 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

4-Vivian Maier, New York, 1954 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

5- Vivian Maier, New York, 1953 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

6- Vivian Maier, New York, 27 July, 1954 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

7-Vivian Maier, New York, 1954 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

8- Vivian Maier, New York, 2 December, 1954 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

Paris Photo 2022

Top six fair highlights

Selected by Alex Merola

Within the Grand Palais Éphémère, Paris Photo 2022 is now underway. This year’s offerings are more diverse and demanding than ever, making it a great litmus test for what is going on in the medium today. Here are six standout displays from the fair’s 25th edition – selected by 1000 Words Assistant Editor, Alex Merola. 


1. Boris Mikhailov, The Theatre of War, Second Act, Time Out
Galerie Suzanne Tarasieve

Paris’ multiple tributes to Boris Mikhailov, in the form of his retrospective at MEP and the haunting presentation of At Dusk at the Bourse de Commerce’s Salon, continue to take on new meanings following Vladimir Putin’s razing over the Ukrainian photographer’s hometown of Kharhiv. Galerie Suzanne Tarasieve’s decision to show The Theatre of War, Second Act, Time Out (2013), a rarely exhibited record of Ukraine’s slide into war, is a strong one. Produced during the wave of pro-European demonstrations in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, these on-the-ground shots depict life behind the barricades – what the artist refers to as a “stage set”. Indeed, the Stalinist square, after which the movement was named, had been rebuilt in the 1930s as a set piece to glorify – or appeal to the memory of – revolution. But what we find here are the architects of a real revolt, ushering in the transformation of a state both deeply ambitious and tragically incomplete. In this regard, the inclusion of prints from Tea, Coffee, Cappuccino (2000–10), chronicling the colourful, plastic realty of Kharhiv in the era of new capitalism, both reflects and disturbs this story. No photographer has captured the complexity of Ukraine’s post-Soviet psyche as eloquently as Mikhailov, whose aesthetic sublimations have kept him on the inside of history, looking out.

2. Jean-Kenta Gauthier, Real Pictures: An Invitation to Imagine

Offering a sensitive dimension to erasure, memory, imagination et cetera – the themes that underpin Jean-Kenta Gauthier’s booth, which feels more like a mini-exhibition – is the installation of Real Pictures (1995) by Alfredo Jaar, who lays to rest the post-traumatic content of his Rwandan photographic encounters by entombing them in black boxes. The site contains a certain sorrow that can only be understood once you read the texts on the boxes, factually describing the photographs. The Real refers to a failure, or impossibility, of representation which sustains Jaar’s engagement with the subject matter of genocide. Whilst Daido Moriyama takes us back to the “beginning” of photography through a shot of his Tokyo bedroom in which Nicéphore Niépce’s “fossilised” View from the Window at Le Gras (1827) hangs (the clock reads 11:03, one minute after the Nagasaki bomb, as memorialised by the melted pocket watch of his mentor, Shōmei Tōmatsu), Hanako Murakami takes us back even further still via Louis Daguerre, whose words, now ignited in neon, “I am burning with desire to see your experiments from nature”, penned in a letter to Niépce. The statement becomes troubled alongside Murakami’s take-free paper stack which cleverly condenses Niépce’s 1829 treatise on the invention of heliography to its front and back covers, respectively illustrating both sides of a single sheet. Murakami’s ongoing, richly researched and poetic archaeologies of the past remind us that the history of photography is full of absences. By questioning the origins of the medium, she questions the memory of the world. 

3. Noémie Goudal
Galerie Les filles du Calvaire

The fragile instability of the world humans desire to see is intelligently interpreted by Noémie Goudal, whose dynamic presentation at the group show of Galerie Les filles du Calvaire really stands out. The complexity of Goudal’s interventions reside in the way it implicates the audience – both visually and spatially – in her fabrications of nature. For example, it is only upon a close inspection that her large snow-capped mountain peak images reveal themselves as paint-coated concrete slabs mounted on cardboard; their initial illusory vastness thus become vertiginous. Yet, if Goudal attempts a trompe-l’œil, it is intentionally flawed, for she does not set out to conceal the models’ constructedness, but instead puts it centre-stage. Her manipulations are even more ambiguous in Décantation (2021), which, on the contrary, are most impactful when viewed from afar. Achieved through a process of printing on water-soluble paper and rephotographing, small, subtle iterations narrate an imaginary washing-out – or “dissolving” – across time. Over the suite of photographs, the rock formations melt, like glaciers. It’s here that Goudal, chillingly, shows us the complicity between the desire to see and the desire to destroy. 

4. Patricia Conde Galería

One of the toughest and most transcendental viewings at this year’s fair comes from Cannon Bernáldez’s El estado normal de las cosas (2022), which is on show at Mexico City’s Patricia Conde Galería. Translating to The normal state of things, the piece sees Bernáldez communicate her experience of being assaulted through the language of fragmentation: an arrangement of 105 silver gelatin prints each depict her wounded hand. By way of burning as well as solarising – extreme, continuous and multiple overexposures of the photographic film – Bernáldez touches on the violence of inhabiting a physical, female body. Just as symbolically loaded is the work of Yael Martínez, represented here by a grid of nine new photographs that tell a dark and fractured tale of contemporary life in Mexico. For all his sublime, fantastical lyricism, Martínez channels an attuned physicality, spirit of resistance and sense of rootedness. Meanwhile, there is a special opportunity to view a portfolio of delectably printed Mary Ellen Mark photographs documenting vibrant happenings at Mexican circuses. Their joyousness and eccentricities make it clear why Mark considered the circus “a metaphor for everything that has always fascinated me visually.” 

5. Jean-Vincent Simonet, Heirloom
Sentiment

Since its inauguration in 2018, the Curiosa sector has been charged with injecting cutting-edge elements into the fair. And this year is no different as Holly Roussell’s energetic curation certainly continues in this vein. Jean-Vincent Simonet’s meta-experiments that form Sentiment’s booth are interesting because they fuse analogue photography and digital techniques in a way that feels more terminal than future. Comprising a classic hang of 12 unique pieces – images of, and made at, the printing factory that has belonged to the artist’s family across three generations – Heirloom (2022) turns its attention to the instruments of production: ink tanks, paper trash and cleaning tools. Whilst they lack the exuberant, excessive fetishism of his fashion work and nudes, they retain all the entropic impulsivity and vivid luminosity that makes Simonet’s work so seductive. Using and abusing industrial printers – through what appears to be a frenzied combination of false settings, plastic foils, drying, washing, rinsing and fingertip smudging – Simonet has manufactured and modified images that bear an uncanny resemblance to painting. Although the ink sometimes seeps into the white bleed, their “aliveness” is actually deceptive, for the lead frames bestow a sense that what we are really looking at are reliquaries: elegiac witnesses of an approaching demise.

6. Kensuke Koike, Versus
Goliga Editions

Kensuke Koike entrances once again with a series of mind-bending photo-sculptures at Goliga Editions, whose presentation is one of the most mesmerising and unique of the book sector. The brass and ebony-wooden frames of Versus (2022) create a kind of playground for the collagist extraordinaire, housing 16 loose acrylic bars that display four original vintage prints on each of its sides. Sliced and spliced with razor-sharp precision (it had to be so, because he had only one shot), Koike’s hand-made assemblages, despite their obvious Surrealist twist, in the end defy any “ism”. For one can switch, rotate and recombine the puzzles to activate wonderful metamorphoses – from human to floral and back again – thereby giving these once abandoned relics the chance to live a large, albeit mathematically finite, number of other lives. As for the rolling, cloud-shaped slider that glides across the base to animate the image, it might border on the gimmicky, but there’s no denying its amusement and charm. Nothing and everything is left to chance for Koike, who offers us a most pure form of visual pleasure: play.

Paris Photo runs at the Grand Palais Éphémère until 13 November 2022.

Alex Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words.

Images:

1-Boris Mikhailov, The Theatre of War, Second Act, Time Out (2013). Courtesy the artist and Galerie Suzanne Tarasieve.

2-Boris Mikhailov, Tea, Coffee, Cappuccino (2000–10). Courtesy the artist and Galerie Suzanne Tarasieve.

3-Daido Moriyama, The Artist’s Bedroom (2008). Courtesy the artist and Jean-Kenta Gauthier.

4-Hanako Murakami, The Immaculate #D5 (2019). Courtesy the artist and Jean-Kenta Gauthier.

5-Noémie Goudal, Mountain III (2021). Courtesy the artist and Galerie Les filles du Calvaire. 

6-Cannon Bernáldez, El estado normal de las cosas (2022). Courtesy the artist and Patricia Conde Galería.

7-Jean-Vincent Simonet, Door (2022). Courtesy the artist and Sentiment.

8-Jean-Vincent Simonet, Untitled #5 (2022). Courtesy the artist and Sentiment.

9-Kensuke Koike, Versus #12 (2022). Courtesy the artist and Goliga Editions.

10-Kensuke Koike, Versus #17 (2022). Courtesy the artist and Goliga Editions.

Prarthna Singh

Har Shaam Shaheen Bagh

Book review by Emilia Terracciano

Far from clichéd photographs of violent protest, Prarthna Singh’s book records dissenting lives amidst the peaceful, female-led protest at Shaheen Bagh, Delhi to form a homage to what keeps the fabric of India bound together, writes Emilia Terracciano.


It’s chilly. She’s wrapped herself from waist to head in a woollen shawl. Swirling pink carnations, little indigo buds, bright saffron crocuses and crimson Kashmiri roses blossom all-over her: a winter garden of delights. She is waiting for her turn to be photographed. Today, the tarpaulin is azure, slightly crinkled in the middle. She stands before it and the photographer does her job. Soon after, she’ll walk away with a moist Polaroid developing her own reduced likeness.

A collection of poems, maps, letters, children’s drawings, photographs of women and children, Prarthna Singh’s Har Shaam Shaheen Bagh was created during the 100 days of a peaceful sit-in protest held at Shaheen Bagh – a working-class neighbourhood located on a trafficked commuter highway connecting Delhi to Noida from December 2019 until March 2020. Women and children, most of them Muslim, congregated at Shaheen Bagh to demonstrate against India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens – two bills introduced by prime minister Narendra Modi, backed by his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which passed into law in December 2019.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act makes foreign undocumented migrants and religious refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship if they are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis or Christians, but not if they are Muslim. Defining citizenship through religion, the Act is widely reputed to be unconstitutional in a country that is (at least in principle) secular and devoted to protecting the right of civilians to practice religious freedom. The Act further marginalises India’s Muslim minority, the third largest in the world. Primarily led by women, the demonstration at Shaheen Bagh rippled across the country in the form of multiple local versions. It was only the spread of Covid-19 that brought Shaheen Bagh to a halt. After lockdown was declared in India, the military moved into the site and destroyed all the structures that grew around it like the rings of a tree: kitchens, chai-stalls, libraries and day-care spaces for children.

The female subject has long been the focus of Singh’s photographic career. Her Champion (2015–ongoing) offers a series of delicate and introspective black-and-white portraits of young female athletes training at government-run sport camps in the northern states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. These pubescent figures, at once vulnerable and strong, defy normative feminine roles: the devoted wife and mother, the familial custodian, preserver of tradition and domestic keeper. “This is not the archetypical female form Indian families recognise,” explains Singh. “For me personally, this figure becomes affirmative in a very patriarchal set up. One of the reasons I get excited about women and their stories is because in the Indian media, ‘woman’ is always the passive object or victim… I want to be surrounded by radical female strength. It is both helpful and hopeful, and this is what keeps me going as a photographer.”

Upon hearing about Shaheen Bagh, Singh travelled to Delhi and took up residency at her grandmother’s home, about a 15-minute walk from the site. It was the second coldest winter since 1901. Joining as a protestor first, Singh sat in, ate, drank chai, sang and chatted to the women who had gathered at Shaheen Bagh. It was later that she became a loving witness, picked up her camera and toyed with the idea of documenting the epic sit-in. Singh organised impromptu set-ups, stretched tarpaulins for backdrops and began to record protestors’ likenesses with her camera. For every portrait taken, she created an identical Polaroid to give back to the sitter. Renamed “magic paper” (jadoo ka kaagaz) by the young girls at the site, the format acquired immediate popularity owing to the advantage of being easily and immediately available. Many more women and children turned up to queue before Singh’s camera.

The photographs included in the book are collaborative and playful; Singh refuses to frame the peaceful crowd as a dangerous collective. Contrasting the demonisation of the mob by Indian mass media, and the erasure of crowds from contemporary art photography, she focused her lens on one demonstrator at a time and delighted in photographing each sitter through a series of frontal, formal and carefully-posed portraits. Each protestor faces the viewer as a proud citizen-subject. We do not find the clichéd photographs of violent protest but a documentation of dissenting lives. There are students, children and mothers – housewives clutching handbags, purses and phones, all wearing several layers of clothes.

Perhaps the salient feature of Shaheen Bagh resides in Singh’s desire to relay something of the protestors’ arguments, intentions, radical disagreements and faith for the future. The portraits and written letters from participants are both important to underscoring this effect. Singh inserts clues and markers of this feminine multitude, and the shape-shifting spaces in which it moved, dwelled, sang, breast-fed, read, cooked and rested in between the individual portraits. Tactile and textile references are threaded into the book as photographs; women lined Shaheen Bagh with fabrics brought from home, but also engaged in acts of exchange: swapping garments, burqas and shawls. The book itself is bound in an off-white, unobtrusive fabric that does not call attention to itself as an object. Singh reminds us of the political and persistent nature of textiles in the history of India, and offers a homage to what keeps the fabric of this country bound together. Shaheen Bagh, set up by women for women, was also an impermanent shelter from the doom of domesticity. The forces of order would rather these women remain invisible and undocumented, be obscured, silenced or tormented. Singh’s book is a memorial to all those who came together to protest, generating in the process a novel vision of solidarity.

All images courtesy the artist © Prarthna Singh



Emilia Terracciano is a writer, translator and lecturer in Modern Art History at the University of Manchester.