The (once) hidden art of street photographer Vivian Maier

By Caitlin Kelly

20120415141416My photo, not hers!

Have you seen the terrific documentary “Finding Vivian Maier”?

I finally saw it, and it’s an amazing true story of a French woman who spent most of her life working as a nanny for wealthy Chicago families, all the while shooting film and video, as — self-described — “a sort of spy.”

She lived in a tiny French town and in New York City in earlier years, but mostly lived in her employers’ homes as a way to live more frugally and to partake in family life. She never married or had children of her own and, it seems, was not at all close to her own family.

The film traces her history and interviews many of the people who knew her, from the children she cared for (and sometimes poorly) to their parents to a few of her friends. She was intensely private, insisting that everywhere she lived there were multiple locks on the door to her room.

And it all started with an auction, when the film-maker, John Maloof, bought a box of negatives:

After John Maloof purchased his first home and pursued a career in real estate in 2005, he began to get more involved in the community where he lived. He delved heavily into historic preservation and eventually became the president of the local historical society on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Given that this part of the city is often ignored, he came to believe that by writing a book on the neighborhood, he could work to promote awareness of its often overlooked charm. It was this decision to co-author the book Portage Park that would change his life forever.

The publisher required approximately 220 high-quality vintage photos of the neighborhood for the book. To gather enough images for this project, John and his co-author, Daniel Pogorzelski, were forced to look everywhere for any old photographs good enough to make the cut. The result was a nearly year-long scavenger hunt where they followed lead after lead to compile the pictures needed for the book. It was during this process that John visited a local auction house, RPN, to see if by chance, they would have any material for the book up for auction. Sure enough, he found a box of negatives depicting Chicago in the 60’s. Unable to get a thorough look at its contents, he took a gamble and purchased the box for around $400.

As someone who began her career as a photographer, and whose husband is a career photographer and editor, this story was even more compelling to me. Her images are truly extraordinary, and also now for sale — how sad and ironic that this has happened only after her death.

But Vivian’s story also intrigues me because we know someone personally whose trajectory is somewhat similar — a single European woman who nannied for wealthy families and who is also an artist. Even her first name initial is the same.

If you haven’t watched the film or seen any of Maier’s photos, I urge you to take a look.

Powerful stuff — and a sad, mysterious and memorable story.

Heard An Idol Tonight At ICP — Legendary Photographer Deborah Turbeville

Diana Vreeland, the fashion icon.
D.V. whose feet D.T. photographed...Image via Wikipedia

I started out wanting to become a photographer. There were not many women doing it when I was a teen, but — to my profound delight — two of the legends from those days are still working and talking to the rest of us through the International Center of Photography, whose midtown Manhattan campus offers classes, workshops, degree programs and a lecture series by famous and less-famous photographers that kicked off this evening.

The first guest was Deborah Turbeville, whose photos really look like no one else’s, tough to do in an image-saturated world. With no photography training, she fell into the world of New York fashion as a model for the legendary sportswear designer Claire McCardell, went on to become an editor at Harper’s Bazaar and began shooting her own work. She created, and cherishes, photos filled with decay, ruin and imperfection — placing exquisite models and couture clothing in enormous old high-ceilinged rooms filled only with natural light or cracked mirrors.

She added lint and dust to her black and white prints, giving them the appearance of photos found in a flea-market tin or someone’s battered turn-of-the-century scrapbook.

The work is not, as it may sound, precious or pretentious or artificial, although it’s very much her creation and vision driving it all. Tonight she regaled the room of about 100 people, (a notably artsy crowd in which almost every single person wore black, gray or brown) with great stories behind some of the work — the Albertini twins and Monsieur Lemoine and the hunchback Jean who all kept trying to oversee her work while she was shooting a book at Versailles for, as she put it coyly “a very famous American woman”, whom I’m guessing was Jackie Onassis, for a while a Manhattan book editor.

“Monkeys were involved, parrots were involved. I’d go out into the street and pick people I thought would look right then dress them up,” she said. The Versailles images include women lying on the floor in huge dresses, a pile of dead autumn leaves a second skirt. “We just invented the whole book as we went along. I went around just snapping away.”

Filled with strong opinions, but funny and self-deprecating, she said she hates it– “I hate, hate, hate it!” — when someone comes to her studio, chooses an image and says: “This is the best one. There is no best one!”  She returns often to shoot in Russia and in weathered old Eastern European cities like Cracow and Budapest. “I love construction sites, things that are broken. It’s my vocabulary.”

Few women could so easily, and un-annoyingly, drop names like Mr. Liberman, (Conde Nast’s famed editorial director from 1962 to 1994) or have so avidly pursued an image — that she had to re-shoot — of the exquisite soft black leather pumps worn by the equally legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. (Her autobiography, D.V., is a great read, beginning with the words, “I loathe nostalgia.”)

Turbeville is still shooting actively, most often for all the iterations of Italian Vogue, she said, mostly because they leave her alone; she told several stories of deeply annoyed clients who’d hired her to showcase their products, only to find them hidden, shadowed or disguised, as she did on a shoot for Calvin Klein shoes.

A show of her work opens next week in Manhattan at the Staley-Wise Gallery. Here’s her new book, Past Imperfect.