Bicycle Diaries: Chicago seen

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Chicago seen

really seen
Vivian Maier

She looks rather dour, this French immigrant who came to the States sometime before WWII. After a brief stint in The Big Apple, she settled in Oak Park, working as a nanny for a solidly Windy City, suburban family. Her immigrant story would've remained rather ordinary if it weren't for her photographic work (consisting of 20,000 negatives and about a thousand rolls of undeveloped film with 12-14 images on each) and John Maloof who bought it at a local estate sale. You can see here what he's gleaned from the vast collection. And you can read the story here of his attempts to meet her; she died days before he finally discovered her whereabouts, and then his efforts to discover who she actually was.

Though her life's details are spare, I think you can get a sense for Vivian from the sheer humanity (and sometimes humor) of her photography. It also reminds me that once upon a time, not all that long ago, The City of Big Shoulders was mostly working class folks little more than a generation removed from The Old Country.

She definitely had the eye for the great contradictions of our Prairie Metropolis. The photos of monumental buildings always include the human beings they supposedly served. More often then not, the foucs is tight, filling the scene with on the margins of successful, rich America in the 1950s and 1960s: the kids, the black maids, the bums flaked out on shop stoops.

It's a shame her artistry lived in obscurity. When I showed Vivian's photos to a co-worker here at Bickerdike, she mentioned that they would have made wonderful visuals for Studs Terkel's Division Street. As he wrote,
The nomadic, transient nature of contemporary life has made diffusion the order – or disorder – of the city….I guess I was seeking some balance in the wildlife of the city as Rachel Carson sought it in nature.

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Blogger 2whls3spds said...


I love old photographs, they give us a glimpse into the past that is often missing in the written word. A picture truly is worth a thousand words.


5/11/09 08:16  

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