Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Her chin is lifted, her eyes fixed on the ceiling, perhaps on a chandelier, it is not possible to know. On her left hand she holds a Rolliflex camera. At the moment when Vivian Maier presses the button, she chooses not to look at the viewfinder but away from it. She wants to be surprised by the image that will be imprinted on the film. Her mouth is slightly open, all her concentration focused on holding the body posture she has envisioned for the composition. To her left, she has placed a mirror on which surface we see the photographer’s image replicated over and over again. A portrait of the photographer by the photographer.
Maier strives to see herself from another vantage point, she wants to play, she wants to experiment with all reflective surfaces and discover how her image appears at times sharp and well-defined, at times blurred. She also wishes to be seen by others as a photographer. Something that for a woman in the 1950s was, unfortunately, beyond reach.
In “Vivian Maier. The Self-Portrait and its Double”, an exhibition running from June 8th until July 21st at Bozar Centre For Fine Arts in Brussels, visitors will be able to see on display several prints by the self-taught American photographer. The exhibition presents some 90 of Vivian Maier’s self-portraits, organized into three sections: shadow self-portraits in which her silhouette plays the leading role, reflections in everyday objects, and finally her play with mirrors. The exhibition also includes two Super 8 films by Maier, which give the visitor a cinematic insight into her view of the world.
Maier (1926-2009) was of French and Austro-Hungarian descent, and she lived and worked as a childminder, first in New York and later in Chicago. Maier was passionate about photography her whole life and captured snapshots of daily life in these two large American cities, where a heterogeneous crowd of people from different social backgrounds crossed paths and whose faces she immortalized. Despite her talent, Maier remained unknown during her lifetime. “She dreamed of being a photographer but at the time it was very difficult for a woman,” says Alberta Sesa, Bozar’s curatorial project coordinator. “The self-portrait gave her some visibility, at least to herself, while others in society made her feel invisible.”
According to the Maier’s Estate, the photographer often traveled between Europe and the United States before coming back to New York City in 1951. Having picked up photography just two years earlier, she would walk down the streets of the city trying to hone her craft. By 1956, Maier left for Chicago, where she’d spend most of the rest of her life working as a caregiver. In her leisure, Vivian would shoot photos that she hid from the eyes of others.
Later in life, Maier became poor and was saved by three of the children she had nannied in Chicago. The Gensburg family. They paid for an apartment and took the best care of her. Without their knowledge, one of Maier’s storage lockers was auctioned off to cover overdue payments. In those storage lockers lay the negatives Maier had saved throughout her lifetime. In 2007, two years before her death, her work would come to light when the negatives were discovered at a local thrift auction house on Chicago’s Northwest Side. From there, it would eventually impact the world over and change the life of John Maloof, the man who brought Maier’s oeuvre to the public.
There are recurring themes throughout her work, including street scenes, portraits of anonymous strangers and people with whom she may have identified, as well as the world of children, so long the world in which she lived. There is also a fondness for self-portraits. These abound in Vivian Maier’s work, appearing in multiple forms and infinite variations, to the point of becoming almost a language within a language. “I think that for her, the act of taking pictures was what Virginia Woolf called ‘A room of my own,’” says curator Anne Morin. “That was the space where she felt free as an artist.”
Maier shows her face in the play of mirrors or in the reflection of shop windows and handles light, angles, and framing in a controlled yet irreverent way. She’s also fascinated by her own shadow. It’s as if she wanted to indicate she was present but calling too much attention to herself. “She seems to be saying, ‘Because I am not recognized as a photographer, I show myself as part of the décor,” says Morin. “’I don’t need to show myself.’”
Since the release of her photographs and films a decade ago, Maier has been posthumously recognized as one of the greatest street photographers along with Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, and Garry Winogrand.
Her self-portraits form a language in itself, a complex codification that constitutes a large part of her work. In today’s world, where selfies and self-representation have become such a recurrent practice, Maier’s aesthetics seem to challenge society by presenting a different and perhaps even radical motivation to the self-portrait: one that is for the private eye alone.