Vivian Maier's photos worth 1,000 Instagrams

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Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier (Vivian Maier/The Jeffrey Goldstein Collection / September 21, 2012)

"Pardon me," Richard Cahan said, leaning in to stop a young woman. She cast a sideways glance, not quite stopping, not quite moving on. "Can I ask what you think?" he said. "What you think as a viewer?"

It was a Tuesday morning, and we stood in a gallery on the second floor of the Chicago History Museum. Large reproductions of black-and-white photos occupied the center of the room, pictures of men and women who themselves had been stopped decades earlier by an unknown photographer. The pictures, taken in the Loop in the '50s and '60s, caught telling expressions — men askance, women startled. Along the walls were contact sheets, unbroken strings of photos from a roll of film, each of the images just as happenstance.

A water tower. A man on a bench. Leaves burning.

"Well, I've seen Vivian Maier's work before," the woman replied to Cahan, who had co-curated the show with fellow photographer and author Michael Williams. "But I think she is probably, like, the best photographer. Or one of the best anyway. Right up there. Her story, it's amazing, how she wasn't known."

"OK, but what about the work do you like?" Cahan asked.

"The visceralness," the woman said.

She walked off, and Cahan smiled at me, as if to say: See, this is no nostalgia trip.

At which I thought two things:

No. 1, the Vivian Maier Industrial Complex rolls on! The History Museum show, "Vivian Maier's Chicago," just opened. A few blocks away at Thomas Masters Gallery, "Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows," which claims to be the first show to put her work into the context of her life, just opened. An "Out of the Shadows" book (compiled and written by Cahan and Williams) is coming next month. In spring, a documentary. Then there are the shows outside Chicago — in Houston, Seattle, Oregon, Switzerland, Italy and Shanghai.

And that's just though February.

Surely, you've heard the tale, told so often it has become an art world campfire favorite: In 2007, five storage lockers were sold at an auction. Among the items, 120,000 photos, contact sheets and undeveloped film rolls, later traced to a humble nanny, a Chicago woman named Vivian Maier who happened to be an amateur street photographer with the eye of a master. None of her work had ever been published, and then, around the time she died in 2009 at 83, once the new owners of her photos understood what they had, there were museum shows, books, a burgeoning legend. As Jeffrey Goldstein, one of the three Chicagoans who own her photos, told me, the human interest story has threatened to drown out serious appreciation for her work. Or, as John Maloof, the other Chicagoan who controls her artistic legacy, put it: "(Expletive) overkill." (Chicago collector Ron Slattery also owns 2,000 prints.)

No. 2, this young woman, reacting to the immediacy of Maier's photographs, was spot on.

In fact, many of us have been so taken with the story of these old photos we never noticed how new the work feels, how Maier's photography, seemingly casual and certainly obsessive, presaged photography in the digital age. The contact sheets that ring the History Museum show, the part of the exhibit visitors linger over longest, seem like ancestors of the random shots stacking up on iPhones and Flickr accounts, seemingly unbroken documents of what a person with a camera runs across. "Portrait-chronicles," Susan Sontag called them.

"Vivian was ahead of everyone," Williams said, walking through the show. "Recording what you do every day, what you see, uploading the results: She did this, in a different way. Truth is, if we cobbled together her thousands and thousands of contact sheets side by side, we'd see the shape of a life."

One contact sheet shows the Highland Park children she looked after waiting for the school bus, followed by pictures she shot that morning in the Loop: a man outside a theater, construction workers. Another sheet shows the view from the train headed downtown, then pictures of downtown.

A contact sheet from the 1968 National Democratic Convention shows soldiers, a man watching from the street, students protesting. In that order.

Maier is thought to have shot a roll of film a day from the '50s to the '70s. With few exceptions — a dead pigeon she photographed several times — "she was a one-shot person," Goldstein said. Her photos, in both Chicago shows, have a traveling, of-the-moment quality. What they don't share is staginess. I told Cahan that I found it unnerving how suddenly model-like people become now for everyday pictures, as though a latent camera-ready gene quietly activated around 2009. He told me about taking pictures at a Chicago Teachers Union rally last week and how creepy it was when kids started professionally posing.

What I forgot to mention was recently watching a couple pose, then run their self-portrait through Instagram and argue over the filter, fading the colors, flaring the light, adding in a white Instamatic border. Immediate nostalgia, instant authenticity.

Granted, they could have gone with Hipstamatic; it adds a phony second or two before it spits out the artfully faded results, simulating the machinery of old photography. But the goal would have been the same: an oversaturated, artfully misshapen and scratched picture that actually never was any of those things. A mediocre moment that resembles a keepsake.

Ironically, as old as Maier's pictures are, few feel as nostalgic or as dated as the most contemporary Instagrams on your cellphone. Of course, there's a difference between photographs never intended to be seen widely and whatever intent Maier had for her photographs. Though she photographed the aftermaths of riots and tornadoes and had newspaper connections, it's unclear if she ever sought publication. The lack of sentiment in the pictures comes from capturing the here and now and not worrying about the posterity part.

Williams told me she couldn't afford a lot of film, and yet the fact she shot trash, pavement and feet with it suggests "an investment in the real world." She shot so impulsively, she left hundreds of undeveloped rolls.

Which is more hopeful than Instagram. Her present didn't exist to remind us of our past.

Goldstein, who left his carpentry business to handle his Maier photos, holds 20,000 images. Maloof, a former real estate agent who tends full time to his own trove, owns 100,000. His vantage is arguably better. He doesn't entirely buy the argument that Maier shot everything or wanted to capture the world, moment by moment, Flickr-esque. He says she was methodical and deeply frugal, though 120,000 images suggest otherwise.

Either way, toward the end of Cahan and Williams' companion book, we learn that Vivian Maier, late in life and very frail, was given a cellphone. She refused to touch it.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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