Vivian Maier: Self-Portrait

BY Sarah Schmerler, December 8, 2013

Vivian Maier, Self-portrait, 1954. Vivan Maier / Maloof Collection. Courtesy Howard Greenberg GalleryVivian Maier, Self-portrait, 1954. Vivan Maier / Maloof Collection. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

Vivian Maier’s self-portraits couldn’t be farther from the current “selfie” craze; her works are full of a strong sense of composition and pictorial narrative – qualities one doesn’t associate with moments of self-indulgence shot on a smartphone camera. Howard Greenberg Gallery makes a fleeting reference to the term in its wall text in this well-focused show, up through January 4 (which includes 41 self portraits, in both black and white and color, shot by Maier between 1950 and 1979) all the better to throw her oeuvre into sharp relief. 

The story behind the work is now legendary; Maier, who worked as a nanny for some three decades, shot truckloads of negatives and told almost no one, rarely, if ever, printing her work. In 2007, John Maloof, a Chicago-based historian, changed all that, buying up her negatives at auction and (with the help of Greenberg and others) having them printed posthumously. So: Maier herself never expected to exhibit a single one of her self-portraits – yet they are all the more intimate, and appealing for that fact. Watching Maier watching herself here is like voyeurism to the nth degree.

Maier’s presence is so unapologetically lacking in vanity it’s almost jarring; she’s pointy chinned and plain; her skinny figure clad in simple, functional clothes. Often she wears a scrunched-up man’s hat, giving her a decidedly masculine outline. In one outdoor photograph, Maier looms as a large shadow over a convex stainless steel orb placed right where her sex should be. In another, her shadow is cast over a smooth beach where the tide has just gone out; sitting in the spot of her “heart” is a single horseshoe crab, all spiny armor and barnacles. Are these comments on Maier’s inner feelings, or just excellent formal moments? Either way, Maier has a spot-on sense for how to drop herself out of the frame, and ease in the bits of photogenic, metaphor-rich marginalia that are shimmering around her. In one of the best shots here, Maier gets reflected, but just barely, in a scatter of bright shaving mirrors placed on a black store window display. The roundness of the mirrors is like a near surreal analog for the lens of the camera itself, and it, not Maier, gets the last word.