Art lovers have a soft spot for people like Vivian Maier, whose career was stamped with the irresistibly romantic and quintessentially tragic hallmarks of the unknown artist. She lived anonymously, earned a modest income, dedicated her life to her art and made no money from it, and died alone and without resources — only to enjoy global fame and stratospheric sales in the years following her death.
Of the 100,000 photos that make up her life's work, many are considered masterpieces of street photography, a genre she has come to dominate, albeit posthumously, since 2007. That’s when Chicago's John Maloof bid on a box of items at auction only to find it contained a treasure trove of Maier's work. Inside a vast archive of black-and-white captures were a number of rare color negatives, which she had produced intermittently throughout her career, turning exclusively to color in 1973.
“Vivian Maier: Living Color, Color/Silver Gelatin/Lifetime Prints From the Maloof Collection,” presented by actor Tim Roth, is currently at KP Projects (in its new location) through Jan. 26, giving Angelenos a first look at the celebrated photographer's color work. “I think she would have been amused,” Roth told L.A. Weekly at the show's opening, imagining Maier's likely response to the red-carpet event were she alive to see it. “She was a film fan, which you can see in some of the photos, so I think she would have liked it.”
Although much of the work audiences have come to know and love was printed after her death, the new show features a selection of black-and-white “lifetime prints,” made by the artist herself, as well as new chromogenic color prints, coinciding with the release of her related monograph, The Color Work, as well as a similar show at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York.
Born in the Bronx and raised in Europe and the United States, Maier became a nanny in Chicago, taking her Rolleiflex camera on outings, assiduously capturing the pathos, poetry and zeitgeist of her era with virtuosic compassion. Her many self-portraits catch her reflection in mirrored surfaces — tall and stooping into her viewfinder.
The color photos trade the square format of her Rolleiflex for 35mm rectangular frames, introducing subdued tones starkly contrasting the saturated imagery frequently associated with the era. The Oscar-nominated 2014 documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, directed by Maloof and Charlie Siskel, and partially financed by Roth, presented her story to the world.
“They were looking for help to make the documentary. So I gave him some money and I said to him, if you ever want to get in touch, if you ever want help, I know a gallery in L.A. And then we started doing an exhibition of her work in L.A. for the first time,” says Roth, a onetime art student at Camberwell Art College, where he studied sculpture; he owns several Maier prints. Last year, he and Maloof mounted a black-and-white show at the same gallery, with images ranging between $2,700 and $14,000.
Maier's last known photos date to around 1994, when poverty and occasional homelessness began to supersede her artistic pursuits. The little money she had went into storing her belongings (she was something of a hoarder), including prints and sundry personal items as well as undeveloped rolls of film. A year after they were auctioned for non-payment of the storage unit, Maier suffered a fatal stroke when she slipped on a patch of ice in downtown Chicago. She died on April 21, 2009, at the age of 83. But as shows like this make clear, her vision is immortal, full of life and color.
KP Projects, 633 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood; (323) 933-4408, kpprojects.net; Tue.-Sat., noon-6 p.m., through March 23; free.