It seems entirely appropriate that the work of Vivian Maier, a brilliant, posthumous “street” photographer, who spent 40 years in Chicago’s bucolic wealthy suburbs raising other people’s children, would end up at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, a town 27 miles west of Chicago.
“Vivian Maier: Exposed,” opens tonight (June 17) at the Cleve Carney Art Gallery in the McAninch Arts Center. The show, which runs through August 17 at the College of DuPage, features unseen, newly developed photographs from the massive body of work Maier left after her death in 2009. The fraction of the 100,000 negatives which have been developed, and the international acclaim her work has since received, have been posthumous.
Maier was born in New York City but spent much of her childhood in France. She returned to the United States when she was 24, and spent the next 40 years working as a nanny on Chicago’s North Shore. After dropping her young charges off at school in the morning, and on her days off, Maier took the train into Chicago, shooting street scenes and people, often visiting unsavory neighborhoods. During her lifetime of shooting street pictures, she never showed her work to anyone.
The families she worked for recall Maier as intensely private, brilliant, opinionated, a lover of the theater, a traveler, socialist and feminist. Her singular focus in life was to shoot photographs.
Her photographs and negatives were discovered at an auction house that had acquired them from a public storage facility in 2007. The bulk of her work, including prints, negatives, undeveloped rolls of film, home movies, tapes of her interviews with street people, cameras and equipment, were bought up by three collectors, including Jeffrey Goldstein.
Goldstein, of Chicago, owns about 30,000 of Maier’s negatives and undeveloped film. Each of them has made it his mission to see that Maier is honored posthumously as one of the great photographers of the 20th century.
By a chance meeting through a mutual friend, Goldstein met Frank Jackowiak, a photography teacher and darkroom manager at the College of DuPage. Jackowiak and four photography students, “Team Vivian” as they soon became known, spent a year of weekends in the College of DuPage darkrooms, developing 275 loads of Maier’s film. There were images that hadn’t been since the day Maier, who showed little interest in the dark room or displaying her work, shot them.
Jackowiak said he came to know Maier as an artist through the images emerging in the developer solution.
“You connected with her on a photographer’s level,” he said. “A lot of people categorize her as a street photographer and she was good at capturing aspects of street life, people dressed up or on skid row, or a child making an odd gesture, or a building. Everything she did she did in her spare time. I learned not to take ordinary life for granted. Everything is important.”
Jackowiak discovered through developing Maier's images, that she was much too savvy an artist and skilled with a camera to be passed off as an amateur who got lucky with selfies. Shooting with a Roloflex camera on 120 film, which contains 12 exposures per roll, Jackowiak and his team got a sense of her days; dropping off her employers’ children at school, then photographing skid row inhabitants in the city before returning to the suburbs in the afternoon to pick up her charges. Some of the exposures were out of focus, but once Maier got the picture she wanted, she charged on.
“Back in those days, if you didn’t know how to use the camera and equipment, you weren’t going to get a picture,” Jackowiak said. “She was self-taught and read a lot of books on photography. She had a natural eye for finding things, but she had to work on exposure like everyone else.”
The best perk for the members of Team Vivian -- Joanne Barsanti, Jerry Cargill, Tom Deitz, Helena Kaminski and Jackowiak -- was being the first person on the planet to see Maier’s images.
“The only thing she was naive about was how great she was, or she simply didn’t care,” Goldstein said. “She had no immediate family members, no boyfriends or girlfriends, no supportive collection of friends. She was alone. She shot threefold of what another photographer would shoot because she didn’t have these peripheral involvements.”
“Vivian Maier: Exposed” opens Tuesday, June 17, with a preview reception from 6 to 8 p.m. The reception is free and open to the public. The gallery has other Maier-centered events planned for the summer as well.
“Vivian Maier: Exposed,” June 17-August 17, Cleve Carney Gallery, McAninch Arts Center, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn, Ill. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday; and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.