Life is sometimes stranger than fiction. The art world sat up when in 2009 the existence and works of Vivian Maier were discovered. A documentary has been made about the life of this maverick, but until then, catching this exhibition should be on your list of things to do in Paris.
Vivian Maier was an American of French and Austro-Hungarian extraction whose life is shrouded in mystery. We know little except that she grew up in France with her mother and left for New York in 1951, where she started working as a nanny. It was also around this time that she started picking up the camera, taking photographs of street scenes, a hobby she pursued when she moved to Chicago in 1956, and during her travels around the world. Maier had no family and few close friends. None of the families she worked for, including the children she took care of, some of whom considered her as their “second mother,” had any inkling that their nanny was an avid and skilled photographer. She kept her photography totally under wraps, secretly developing her negatives in bathrooms and stashing her equipment and rolls of film in attics and storage lockers. When she grew older and could no longer work as a caregiver, she found herself shuttling from place to place, until some of her former charges put her up in an apartment.
It was only in 2007, when she could no longer keep up with payments for these storage lockers and their contents were being auctioned off, that John Maloof came across these negatives, and her amazing photography and strange life came to light. In all, she left over 100,000 negatives as well as some films.
Who really was Vivian Maier? Why did she never show her photographs to anyone? Was it compulsive secrecy, modesty or the contrary, pride? What intentions did she have for her photographs? Does one take photographs, a visual narration, only to take them to one’s grave? How did she learn photography? Did she measure herself against contemporary artists? If she were still alive (Maier died after a fall in 2009), what would she make of all this attention?
The intrigue aside, Maier’s photographs are very much worth seeing. Often compared with icons of street photography such as Diane Arbus and Henri-Cartier Bresson, she captured urban America and its population across social classes, with a soft spot for the poor and the homeless, women and children. Her keen observation and eye for detail will leave you hungry for more. Watch out for the few self-portraits scattered throughout the gallery, where Maier shows up obliquely through her shadow and reflection. Ultimately these photographs were the only voice of this free-spirited Mary Poppins.
The exhibition is on view until January 11, 2014, at Les Douches La Galerie.
Les Douches La Galerie
5, rue Legouvé, in the 10th Arrondissement. 01 78 94 03 00.
Open Wed–Sat, 2 p.m.–7 p.m. (see website for opening hours during holidays).