Visiting Vivian Maier at the Chicago History Museum


It was free day at the Chicago History Museum last Wednesday. I took nearly full advantage; didn’t arrive as soon as they opened, since it’s kind of a schlep for me, but I still arrived early enough to spend as much time at the museum as I wanted.

It helped that I’d already been through the Chicago: Crossroads of America guided tour, and thoroughly examined the Railroaders exhibit. While I enjoyed several new-to-me sections during this visit, taking copious notes in the Lincoln’s Chicago and Facing Freedom exhibits, and stopping briefly to revisit other rooms, the highlight of this trip was Vivian Maier’s Chicago

Vivian Maier (1926-2009), also known as the nanny photographer, lived in Chicago from 1956 until her death in 2009. She worked as a North Shore nanny for roughly 40 years, but spent her days off pursuing a vocation in street photography. Her work was discovered 2 years before her death, when she couldn’t pay the rent on her storage unit and her possessions (including scads of undeveloped film) were auctioned off. Shortly after her death, John Maloof (Chicago historian and collector) began posting her work on the internet to critical acclaim.

I spent at least an hour at Vivian Maier exhibit. At first I concentrated on the small strips of pictures, reminiscent of developed (and printed) film rolls that ringed the room, each of a particular event or neighborhood.

Strips I found especially resonant:

  • Grant Park – Democratic National Convention (1968), especially the shot of the earnest nun in conversation with a small group of people, all standing under a tree
  • A Day as a Nanny (1968), which mostly showed a young boy in striped shirt and small-brimmed madras hat clowning around a low hanging, backlit tree branch but had one shot I found particularly humorous: a tiny fish lies on the front seat of a rowboat, perhaps the boy’s catch of the day
  • Nixon Resigns (1974) which shows stacks of Chicago Tribunes, Daily News, and Sun Times with the headline; the strip closes with several grainy shots of Nixon on television, addressing the nation

The filmstrips were affecting, but for my money, the kick-in-the-gut stunning pictures, all unlabeled and blown up to 4’x4′ or larger single photos, formed cubicles in the center of the room. There were a few images of buildings, like Marina Towers and the demolition of the old Chicago Federal Building, but most were portraits of diverse people.

A sample:

  • A thin, handsome young white man wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans under a wrinkled topcoat, his hair in a pompadour, leaning against a warehouse door
  • Three African Americans on a gray winter day – a small boy in a stocking cap and a heavyset man in an ivy cap flank the thin, worn man in the center. He wears a herringbone tweed coat but no hat; his hair is graying and his face unshaven, and he looks down, lost in what appear to be discouraging thoughts
  • A woman, probably in her 60s, who wears a dark boiled-wool coat and a small-brimmed cloche with a black patent leather band. Her direct, open gaze through cat-eye glasses seems happy and curious, though she shows barely a trace of a smile

If your interest is piqued , you can see some actual Vivian Maier images here

Love, love, love the Chicago History Museum. The exhibit I’m looking forward to next is The 1968 Exhibit, opening October 4, 2014. Maybe I’ll see you there.


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