By Dominique Wald
Vivian Maier, born in 1926, was a famous American street photographer who kept her private life private and her photography even more private.
It wasn’t until she died in 2009, leaving thousands of negatives behind, that people began to notice her work and her name gained notoriety.
Those negatives have since been printed and can now be seen in Washington State University Muesum of Art’s newest exhibit, “Through the Lens, an American Century: Corbis and Vivian Maier.” The exhibit, which opened Monday and runs through April 3, opens up an investigation into the public and private by blending historical and iconic with intimate and personal.
Maier spent most of her life in Chicago as a nanny and left no heirs or family when she died. Her negatives were discovered by John Maloof, a man who was interested in writing a book on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Maloof ended up taking a gamble on a box of negatives and bought it for $400 without getting a thorough look of its contents.
What he had unknowingly purchased was a box full of Maier’s street photography.
With Maier not around to explain the story behind each photo, how does one begin to decide which photos deserve to be printed and which were intended to collect dust?
WSU curator of education and collections Zach Mazur, 33, believes it’s a small question with a big answer.
“This is an artist who spent her life unrecognized, unknown, and there are curators who have to decide what kind of artist she was, and how she should be represented,” Mazur said. “It’s completely subjective.”
Mazur also said it’s evident Maier’s photographs weren’t necessarily meant to be seen by the public.
“She didn’t want anything to be printed, she didn’t want anyone to see her work. Not even the families of the children she used to nanny,” Mazur said.
The photos in the exhibit depict subjects, both children and adults, in moments that are seemingly simple but encompass an emotional appeal. Using her camera as a social tool, Maier captures moments of intimacy, perhaps because it was something she was longing for.
WSU assistant professor of photography Dennis DeHart, 44, explained why people are drawn to these images.
“The photographs are great, there’s no doubt about that. … I think it’s the story that makes people compelled and engaged in a broader level,” DeHart said. “It’s more of a narrative in modern art.”
DeHart went on to say the images captured by Maier give insight into a human moment and the human condition, both of which are widely embraced in today’s culture, making her work so successful.
Vivian Maier’s portion of the exhibit brings up myriad questions — questions only Maier could answer.
The other half of the exhibit is dedicated to historical and iconic images collected by Corbis, ranging from Migrant Mother to 9/11, asking the question, “Where were you when … ?”
WSU curator of art and exhibition Ryan Hardesty, 41, said the 32 historical photos on display confirm history does in fact repeat itself.
“It’s an interesting thing when all of a sudden a photograph that represents a time and an era or moment suddenly resonates again and is being referenced to again in today’s media,” he said.
“These pictures are burned into our mind, they’re burned into our social consciousness,” Hardesty added. “Anyone from any generation can walk into this room and say, ‘I remember that moment,’ and start a conversation.”
While the two exhibits showcase different forms of photography, the combination between what evokes emotion and what is iconic is bound to spark a discussion for all who attend.
More information on “Through the lens, an American Century: Corbis and Vivian Maier” can be found on the WSU Museum of Art website, http://www.museum.wsu.edu.
If you go
What: WSU Museum of Art’s newest exhibit, “Through the lens, an American Century: Corbis and Vivian Maier”
When: Exhibit runs through April 3. Reception from 5:30-7:30 p.m. next Thursday featuring gallery discussion by WSU assistant professor of photography Dennis DeHart
The gallery is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays and closed Sundays.
Where: WSU Museum of Art, located in the WSU Fine Arts Building on campus