One of the most intriguing photographer’s of the twentieth century was discovered four years ago by accident, causing a sensation in the photography world. After being launched into the public eye with numerous international exhibitions, Vivian Maier’s work returns to her home city for the summer. Anna Bonita Evans reports.

An extraordinary story surrounded by mystery, secrecy and displacement, the life of Vivian Maier and events leading up to her emergence in the photography world may, at times, deflect attention from her insightful images. The phenomenon ‘who is Vivian Maier?’ is a fascinating question, and one we have all excitedly speculated over and some have even sensationalised. Exhibitions like Summer in the City however, help us to shift the focus back to the life’s work of this gifted photographer.

Maier’s photographs are a meticulous catalogue of mid-century Americana. New York Times journalist David W Dunlap, who grew up in Chicago around the time Maier was photographing, equated her images to ‘thousands of blinks of the civic eye, tens of thousands of beats of the public’s heart’ — she captured the incessant pulse of Chicago life through her altruistic and gifted observations. Maier took an estimated 150,000 images, 37 of which from the Jeffrey Goldstein Collection have been carefully selected to depict life in the heat of the hazy summer season.

Summer in the City features Maier’s interpretation of beach, street and suburban scenes she was exposed to; her photographs demonstrate an ability to capture the unexpected, amusing, incongruous and mysterious. Looking at her work, we perceive her ongoing curiosity with relationships and the foibles of society. Many who knew Maier recall her as a recluse, deliberately elusive and at times abrasive, her intense interest in others seems to have been only practised through the viewfinder. Her career as a nanny simultaneously blended with her role as a photographer: she needed to be both absent and present. This degree of separation allowed her to go unnoticed: walking from street to street, block to block, Maier soaked up the energy and recorded the inner fabric of city and suburban life.

Her compassionate images seem to be a paradox to her eccentric persona; was her camera the only way she could communicate with the world?

Taking roughly a 12 shot roll of film a day, Maier nurtured an exceptional accuracy in capturing a raw emotion, a true portrait. When studying the rolls of negatives, she did not commonly shoot towards a subject, taking four or five frames until she had the final image, instead she pressed the shutter once and moved on. Each roll of film seems to transcend into her diary: we witness a woman’s life unfolding through an unbroken string of images.

Summer in the City consists of 12×12 silver gelatine prints, each a hands-on creation by expert printers Ron Gordon and Sandra Steinbrecher, a partnership devoted to printing Maier’s images based on the aesthetics and technologies of the 1950s and 60s. High contrast, rich shadows and bright highlights imbue the prints on display.

Ron and Sandra’s work is mostly interpretive, however, as they had very few prints to refer to — as far as we can tell Vivian Maier only printed a small number of her images, eight of these rarities will be displayed at this exhibition.

We can only make guesses as to Maier’s attitude to her photography, whether she would endorse the publicity her images are now receiving. While we can endlessly speculate, this enigma need not be all consuming, instead we can just enjoy looking at Maier’s photographs and glean what she was drawn to.

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