After seeing the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, I felt absolutely compelled to get to Los Angeles to see the exhibition of the reclusive, rediscovered photographer’s pictures at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery on S. La Brea.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the back story here – it’s available online at www.VivianMaier.com. The very short version is she was a prolific 20th century street photographer who produced an astounding body of work, more than 100,000 negatives – only a very small number of which were ever printed during her lifetime – but whose identify was discovered just days after her death in 2009.
Now, after a very fast day trip to LA, I am trying to find a way to write about the seventy-plus pictures, mostly black and white, on the bare white walls at the gallery while avoiding any cliché or rote art-criticism language.
Suffice it to say, seeing the documentary or even looking at the pictures posted on the website is not enough. As John Maloof, one of the serendipitous conservators of Maier’s work understood, they must be seen as she might have wanted them to be seen: in museum-quality prints where the depth, detail and singular vision of each photo is inescapable.
My only complaint about the show is that the gallery has provided no chairs or benches so visitors can sit in front of one or more of their favorites. You need to spend time with these pictures, have long conversations with them, read them like novels or biographies. Almost every one seems to have some aspect that is striking and fresh.
You stand there thinking, “How did she do that?”
In some, it’s the composition – a shot of a man in silhouette on a ladder among large neon signs, the diagonal and vertical lines practically vibrating off each other.
In others it’s the moment captured – a street scene with a couple in intimate conversation by a building, the woman’s face possibly upset or angry but perhaps just caught in mid-word, while another couple walk by, their eyes locked straight ahead. Are they oblivious to the small drama going on a few feet away or deliberately avoiding it?
The unanswered questions pile up. How many shots of a scene was she able to take with her Rolleiflex or various 35 millimeter cameras? Were some of her portraits posed, and why did she choose the dozen or so shots on one wall that were printed during her lifetime?
What did she see in the dirt-covered face of a toddler with blond hair and blue eyes that seem to have already experienced some pain or sadness or want beyond his years?
(At least a few of these questions can be answered on the Vivian Maier website, where Maloof has posted some of her contact sheets.)
At first I kept thinking about logistics – where and when each shot was taken. A price list offers such basic information if available. But after revisiting some of the pictures with the list in hand, I realized that putting a date or location on them felt unnecessary and intrusive; it took something away from what I was seeing, rather than adding to it.
What draws you to these pictures and stays with you long after you have left the gallery is Maier’s ability to see and record the world around her in ways that were both completely specific to their time and place and completely timeless
The Vivian Maier show runs through Saturday at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery, 170 S. La Brea, Los Angeles. Gallery hours are 12-6 p.m., closed Monday.
Go, for the good of your soul. Take a chair.