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Richard Cahan shares his fascination with Vivian Maier and her mysterious legacy

Richard Cahan

Richard Cahan

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Somewhere, somehow, you’ve probably heard of Vivian Maier.

She was the North Shore nanny in the 1960s and ’70s who left behind more than 100,000 photographs and negatives when she died in 2009. Two years before her death, her work was sold for pennies per picture at one of those storage locker auctions that are so popular on TV. Now, she’s considered one of the great photographers of the 20th century.

Still don’t recognize her name? Google “Vivian Maier” images and I’ll wait as you ooh and ahh.

I started oohing and ahhing in late 2009, when a friend directed me to one of the first websites showing Maier’s work. At that point, people all over the world were attracted to those photographs, which were filled with heart and artistry. They demanded her work be shown at museums and in books.

In early 2011, I was one of thousands who lined up to see her work at the record-breaking exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center. Later that year, I was invited by Jeffrey Goldstein, owner of about 17,000 of Maier’s prints and negatives, to co-author a book with Michael Williams titled Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows (CityFiles Press), which was published late last year.

I’ve now spent two years with Vivian — or, rather, the work she left behind. I’ve contacted dozens of people who knew her, traveled to New York City and France to better understand her, and am now privileged to help present her work all over Chicago and the country.

I also helped curate “Vivian Maier’s Chicago,” a show that runs through the end of the year at the Chicago History Museum. The exhibit features 40 life-size Maier images suspended midair on cables that create a maze for people to walk through. The pictures show what Chicago was like when Maier roamed the streets with her cameras.

Older Chicagoans love the exhibit because it takes them back to a familiar place and era. But people born decades later — and people from all over the world — love the show, too, because the pictures are so universal.

Nanny Vivian Maier, by all accounts, had a special zest for teaching her young charges about the world around them. She took them on L trips, bringing them to faraway neighborhoods to show them a world right next door that they never knew, and she challenged them to appreciate all kinds of lives.

Maier continues to give those life lessons, even after her death. In her photos, a man checks his fingernails; a woman holds onto her hat in the wind. Maier reminds us to us to slow down and look at the city around us. Without being preachy, she shows us the wonders and dignity of Chicago, from Skid Row to Michigan Avenue. Maier loved to connect with people — even though that connection was often only as long as it took to click the shutter — but her pictures show a remarkable love of humanity that help us better understand the possibilities of life.

When I first discovered Maier, like many, there were times when I was skeptical of her place as an artist. I wondered how a woman could be so skilled and take such evocative pictures without being noticed. I told myself that her work probably wouldn’t hold up to the hype. But I was wrong. I learn about life and art every day from Vivian Maier.

Fascinated yet? Go see the Chicago History Museum show, come see and hear upcoming talks about Maier (today at the Bridgeport Art Center or June 7 at the Chicago Photography Center) or watch upcoming documentaries about her, one by the British Broadcasting Corporation and one by Chicagoan John Maloof.

You’ll see what Maier knew and shared about life and art. And like all of her lessons, she’ll probably surprise and amaze you.

Richard Cahan, former Sun-Times picture editor, is the author of several books on Chicago, art and photography. He will be speaking about Vivian Maier along with Ron Gordon, a master printer, from 7 to 10 p.m. this evening at the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th.

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