The late Vivian Maier, a nanny, is one of the hottest names in photography. Famous for leaving more than 100,000 undeveloped negatives behind in storage, Maier died before her work came to light. Her mysterious story continues to unravel, and now for the first time, her images can been seen in Northern California.
“Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows,” on view at the Scott Nichols Gallery through April 26, exhibits a sampling of what Maier has become known for: exceptional documentary-style photography.
When historian John Maloof purchased an auction lot of negatives in Chicago in 2007, no one knew how good they were. Working his way through the archives, in 2009 he posted Maier’s work on a blog, which went viral.
The secretive woman who worked as a caretaker (and died in near-poverty in Chicago in 2009) was compared to midcentury luminaries such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank.
Today, Maier’s work is the subject of three books, and the 2013 documentary film “Finding Vivian Maier” is slated for wide release in April.
Her vast archive is mostly split between two collectors, Maloof and Jeffrey Goldstein, who purchased some of her work separately. Images on view in The City are from Goldstein’s collection.
What little is known about Maier is gleaned from a hodgepodge of people, including the families for whom she worked. A book accompanying the exhibition by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams paints Maier as a fiercely private person who often gave false names, hoarded books and newspapers, and stashed her negatives rather than developing them.
For all of her secrecy, and like some of the world’s best photographers, she didn’t have qualms about invading others’ privacy.
“Partial View of Feet,” shot on the beach in Wilmette, Ill., is a cheeky snap of two sets of feet looking snug underneath what looks like a boat. “Elderly Couple Holding Hands,” somewhat of a companion shot, is exactly that: a cropped image zoning in on two rear ends and a pair of two wrinkled, veined clasped hands. Maier’s eyes saw everything, from kissing couples to street buskers, bustling city life and static suburbs.
The somewhat awkward, but nevertheless charming image “Boy with Glasses” could be mistaken for Diane Arbus. A short, doughy boy with a buzz cut in a shirt and tie stands outside clutching a magazine under his left arm. His right eye is nonexistent, showing only a white circle within the frame. His lips parted, his expression is vaguely surprised but sweet.
Much like Maier herself, we’ll never know who he is.
IF YOU GO
Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows
Where: Scott Nichols Gallery, 49 Geary St., fourth floor, S.F.
When: 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; closes April 26