Vivian Maier Chicago Exhibit – A Review

by Christine Aguila


Christine Aguila - Vivian Maier Chicago Exhibit 01

On a night when “cooler by the lake” was a gross understatement, folks headed downtown on January 7th to one of the city’s crown jewels, the Chicago Cultural Center, to attend the much anticipated opening reception for the Finding Vivian Maier: Street Photographer exhibition, which runs from January 8th – April 3rd, 2011. What a delightful evening it proved to be! [Ed. note: Read more about Vivian Maier here.]

The owner of this extensive collection, John Maloof, now celebrated for finding and archiving Maier’s work, was in attendance and graciously agreed to answer a few questions. According to Maloof, the famous Chicago photography gallery, Daiter Studio, and the Chicago Cultural Center have been very helpful with advice and guidance on the project, but, interestingly, the Museum of Contemporary Photography, located on Michigan Avenue and connected with Columbia College, has not contacted him. Maloof mentioned his plans for a book and a documentary and the on going quest for funding such projects. When asked if he had applied for an Illinois Arts Council grant, Maloof admitted not having heard of the council but agreed it would be a good idea to apply for funding. Finally, when queried on the organizing principal for the “Finding Maier” exhibition, Maloof stated: we did it “chronologically.”

Christine Aguila - Vivian Maier Chicago Exhibit 02

Seventy-two photographs are displayed in two large rooms, and each contains a museum case with Maier ephemera. Room one offers three walls of 12 x 12 black and white and one wall of color prints taken in New York, Chicago, California, Egypt, and Canada. The museum case in room one contains four of Maier’s wide brimmed hats and items from her personal papers: a handwritten note: “Do best job–so no redo!!–customer is very particular” and an envelope addressed to Maier with the return address of the still existing Central Camera on Wabash Avenue. Maier is reported as having her film developed there.

Christine Aguila - Vivian Maier Chicago Exhibit 00

Room two displays all black and white photographs mostly taken in New York, a few in Chicago, and the famous White Dress photograph made in Florida circa 1957. Also included are five self-portraits; three are reflections in either glass or metal, and two are shadow self-portraits. The museum case in room two includes three of Maier’s cameras, most notably her Rolleiflex and Exakta; samples of her own printmaking; seven rolls of exposed Ektachrome, 15 rolls of exposed 120 Kodak Pan; and one 8mm film canister signifying the several 8mm movies Maier is reported as having made during her lifetime.

Vivian Maier - Florida 1957

Vivian Maier - Florida 1957
(click for large)

According to a staff member from the Chicago Cultural Center, 1,500 people were planned for, and there is little doubt the exhibition came close to reaching that number. The place was packed, the energy soared, and folks thoroughly engaged with Maier’s work—work, this writer found terrific!!!

Overall, the work in this exhibition collection shows strong attention to light and shadow, and Maier’s eye for balance and composition is expert. While eavesdropping, one viewer was overheard saying, “There’s so much character in every detail of the shots.” The street portraits are subtly varied in both pose and emotional expression, and the street scenes reveal playful juxtaposition and repetition. A particular favorite depicted two men dressed in canary yellow shorts of the 1970s length, meaning short by contemporary standards–yellow socks, and hard street shoes, as well as, a woman in a bright yellow skirt carrying a yellow purse. The frame captures the three subjects crossing the street, and the repetition of color here is quite comical. While standing before the picture and trying to contain giggles, a woman turned to me and said, “How did she get that shot?”

Christine Aguila - Vivian Maier Chicago Exhibit 04


I could have said, “Ah, welcome to the wonderful world of street photography, where technical expertise, a quick eye, and luck all work together for the street photographer who’s on her toes and paying attention”, but I went for the vague and non-committal and replied, “Indeed.”

Finally, credit must be given to Mr Maloof, who by his own admission is quite new to photography and printmaking. The archival inkjet B&W prints had solid tonal range, and the color prints were dynamic but not garish or gaudy. So, well done John Maloof!

It was a great night for this city Chicago. In an architecturally stunning building devoted solely to the voices and visions of artists from all genres, Chicagoans met for the first time a prolific lady street photographer. Given the extent of Vivian Maier’s archival collection, she and this city are bound to be friends for a very long time.


A native Chicagoan, Christine Aguila resides in the city with her husband and teaches at a local community college.

All images: ©Christine Aguila, unless otherwise noted.


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Related posts:

  1. Vivian Maier, Chicago’s Mysterious Photographer – A Timeline
  2. Augenblick: A Photography Exhibit for Chicago, and a Book for the World
  3. Vivian Maier’s Photobook Available to Order
  4. Review – Elliott Erwitt: Personal Best Exhibit (on TOP)
  5. Richard Avedon Exhibit at Boston’s MFA – A Review

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1 Comment

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