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Vivian Maier's mysterious mid-century Midwestern misfits, masters and more

by LiveModern Webmaster last modified Jan 04, 2012 02:58 AM
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by Edward Lifson ( last modified Mar 12, 2011



A very moving and exciting find is the street photography of Vivian Maier. From the 1950's to 1990's, Chicago-based Maier traveled the world. See as many of her photographs as you can. This one caught my eye.       

The second image is Boulder. Frank Lloyd Wright put this work by Richard Bock by the entrance to his studio in Oak Park, Illinois. It shows the theme of this post - the soul's eternal struggle to break free of its bonds and to express the self. 

My friend, the critic and educator James Yood, notes that Chicago art often portrays the distressed body. Think Chicago-born Leon Golub, e.g.,

Interrogation III - (detail)

The Greeks began to show the life of the mind in their sculpture; much later, Rodin gave us this weighted-down   

Crouching Figure

And in popular 20th century culture   

Harry Houdini
breaks free of his chains.

. Wright's Boulder, of course, owes much to Michelangelo's


... which we used to call "slave." 

Which takes us back to where we started, to the Vivian Maier photograph at top. She shows us a man, perhaps born free, but in chains. Fallen man, with unwashed clothes and inward-turned pose, she has us think he doesn't believe that another human being in the world could care for him. He makes a cube, like the pair in Brancusi's "The Kiss," but he hugs no one and no one hugs him.  Instead, he, maybe instinctively, takes the fetal position, with some memory of a time when someone must have cared for him. Now, only a thin, rumpled coat protects him from the buffeting and the elements of the world. His shoes are past their half-life; now perhaps best-suited to walking downhill. The man hides his face, with a hat that in better times would be his crown, and now can act as a shield for shame. 

The material world in Maier's photo puts him at around 1963, the year of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech on the condition of bondage and the longing to be free. The speech, given at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, is scriptural and sculptural.

     With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope... 
     Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
     Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
     Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
     From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
     And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every     
     village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that 
     day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants 
     and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

             Free at last! Free at last!
             Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Another photograph by Vivian Maier.

The elder's identity is hardly seen.  The young one reaches up towards a circle-like perfection. A circle figures in many of Maier's works. 

It's also interesting as we watch current events unfold in the Middle East, with people there demanding dignity and freedom, to note that Maier had traveled to Egypt and around the region. 

See a second, also poignant, collection of Vivian Maier's photography here.  
She lived the rich, if eccentric, life of a woman refusing to be shackled, finding her self, and expressing it.  

Vivian Maier 





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