Vivian Maier – The woman in the mirror

It’s a phenomenon of our generation – meticulously capturing every moment as if it could evaporate into nothingness. Hardly a day goes by without shooting our food, our clothes or the latest expensive purchase, showcasing to the digital community in the right light, with the perfect filter. The self-image is considered the crown of narcissism. The self-absorbed look in the mirror usually does not show reality, but the distorted self-perception of our digital society. Social platforms ultimately serve as a portfolio of one’s own lifestyle, one’s own perfection. And capturing moments, just for ourselves, to the exclusion of the public – that seems today pointless even purposeless.

All the more surprising, that the photographic legacy of U.S. photographer Vivian Maier became a commercial success and achieved public renown only postmortem. For all her life, the amateur photographer kept her work under lock and key. Who was the person who photographed herself in the mirror? What do her clothes reveal? Her gestures? Her facial expressions? No hint of emotion or reaction. No scenes with family, friends or acquaintances. Yet Vivian Maier’s work stands out from other photographers. A strength in image composition that probably stems from Maier’s character. The pure look at the self. Sober, real, uncompromising. Her self-portraits are probably her most famous works and show the autonomy of the artist.

Vivian Maier was born in New York in the mid-twenties. Early on, her parents separated. The broken relationship with her father, who was known as an aggressive drinker and gambler, later showed in her photographs and illustrations of men. In support of the family, portrait photographer Jeanne Bertrand, a friend of the mother, provided help around the house. A key figure that probably inspired her to capture moments. But Maier didn’t follow Bertrands footsteps in those days – she started working as a nanny and went to Chicago with the money earned, where she spent her entire life. Beginning in the late 1940s, she is said to have taken nearly more than 150,000 photographs, capturing mostly urban life on the streets of New York and Chicago, industrial plants, people on the fringes of society, children at play, pigeons, and everyday scenes.

Reflective surfaces, frames, shadows – Vivian Maier’s works convince with their extraordinary compositions. She was not interested in photographing herself as a mannequin, but rather in showing many sides that coexisted in her complex person. Maier always kept moving, observing and photographing as she made her way through life. Shots from the cityscape, strangers who seem so close, and in between portraits of Maier herself. Her face is reflected in a round mirror and appears from an almost mysterious darkness. How much time does she take for the composition? The pictures appear effortless and full of spontaneity with a talented eye for the right moment. Vivian Maier developed a terrific ability to recognize spaces and use light eloquently – almost abstract experiments with shadows and lines.

In her pictures, Maier is not seen smiling. A tall woman with short hair and simple wardrobe. She seems reserved, was considered taciturn. To some she told that she was a Jewish refugee from France, to others she was a spy. Vivian did not reveal much about her real identity. Odd, complex and in her own world. She trusted no one. Neither her counterpart nor her own work. At the end of the 1990s, Vivian Maier was homeless and spent her daytime lonely on park benches. In 2009, Maier died without family in a nursing home at the age of 83. She had no illusions, neither regrets about life’s choices, and once saying, “Life is like a wheel – you jump on and ride to the end, and then someone else has the opportunity to ride to the end and is replaced by someone else in turn. There’s nothing new under the sun.”

What drove Maier at the end to keep her photographs secret? We will never succeed in fully understanding her intension. But her art remains eternally free of narcissism and the pursuit of fame. Today, in time of social media, the portrait no longer exists just for the sake of existing. It seeks comments, and “likes”. Maier’s legacy, on the other hand, shines even without audience applause.

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