Vivian Maier’s photography has had a seismic effect on the art world since it was discovered a few years ago. The poignant story behind the work enhances its appeal: Maier was one of the finest street photographers of the mid-twentieth century, yet she kept her work hidden and died in poverty. In fact, she worked as a nanny for her entire career, living with a succession of suburban families and becoming increasingly eccentric. Her employers knew her as a shutterbug, but it was only after her death that the amazing quality and breadth of her work was discovered.
Maier’s photography, and her fascinating story, would never have come to light if not for John Maloof, a young Chicagoan who happened across a trunk of her negatives at a local auction house. In the absorbing new documentary Finding Vivian Maier, Maloof traces the story of his find, and the obsessive quest he went on to solve the mystery behind the treasure trove of images Maier left behind.
The film, which is both unsettling and delightful, offers a compelling, bittersweet portrait of a very complicated woman. A veritable Mary Poppins figure to some of the children she worked with, Maier was abusive to others. She was extremely wary of men, in a way that suggested she might have been abused herself. Often she refused to give her name and occupation to people, referring to herself as “the mystery woman” or “a kind of spy.”
If you live in a city, in a place where you can look into other people’s windows through your own, it may be irresistible to indulge your voyeuristic impulses. We all love mysteries, and what could be more mysterious than a parallel life witnessed in glimpses through glass? Just ask Jeff Jeffries, the character played by James Stewart in Hitchcock’s masterful Rear Window. Laid up at home with a broken leg, Jeffries gets so involved with his Greenwich Village neighbors that he gives them inventive nicknames like “Miss Torso.”
With its crowded-together buildings and social diversity, New York City is the perfect locus for a film like Rear Window, or the similarly voyeuristic Dirty Windows, photographer Merry Alpern’s 1995 book of images secretly shot through the window of a low-rent sex club. But not everything going on through those neighboring windows is tacky or suspicious. Witness Gail Albert Halaban’s beautiful new book Out My Window (powerHouse), a warm and lyrical study of New Yorkers and their windowscapes.
“I am an invisible man,” begins Ralph Ellison’s famous 1952 novel, in an opening that rivals “Call me Ishmael” and “Lolita, light of my life” for its compact resonance. The narrator of Invisible Man goes on to say that he’s “not a spook like those that haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms.” Instead, his invisibility is caused by race: being a black man in 1950s America makes him a blank canvas onto which people’s fears and anxieties are projected.
How do you photograph an invisible man? That was the challenge Gordon Parks took up in 1952, when Invisible Man was published. At that time, Parks himself was a highly visible black man. He’d broken through race barriers to become the first African-American staff photographer at Life magazine, and had written his own prose and poetry. He’d made an enduring and iconic portrait, American Gothic, in which a dignified cleaning woman symbolizes the shabby treatment of blacks in America.
The soulful images Parks produced, with inspiration from Ellison’s novel, are the subject of an intriguing exhibition, Contact: Gordon Parks, Ralph Ellison and ‘Invisible Man’ at the Howard Greenberg Gallery. At the time he made this work, Parks had just won a plum assignment to work in Paris for Life. He was leading a cosmopolitan life of glamor–but his passion and empathy for Harlem shines bright and clear in his Invisible Man series.
Are the Internet and social media making us more, or less social? Smarter or dumber? Are you going to make it through this review before clicking over to check your email, Twitter account, Facebook page, or blog site? How many people “liked” your status update today?
Artist Rachel Lee Hovnavian is fascinated by the social transformations wrought by the virtual world. Mud Pie, her new show at the Leila Heller Gallery, is all about how we seem increasingly happy to forgo real experience in favor of the virtual and artificial. This could be a dry, heavy-handed message, but Hovnavian delivers it with such sly humor and visual panache that even the most committed technophiles might have to admit she’s on to something.
Take the show’s centerpiece, a supposedly romantic dinner for two. A long dining table is elegantly set with all the expected signifiers: flowers, candles, wineglasses. But the couple itself is virtual, represented by two LCD screens. The man and woman on the screens don’t speak to each other. Instead, each seems perfectly satisfied to interact with a mobile device while beeps, trills and the Angry Birds soundtrack punctuate the silence. Oh, and those flowers? They’re artificial. Naturally.
When we see photographs from Africa, they’re often dispatches from war or famine zones. It’s a sad truth that there are enough “hot spots” in Africa to supply us with a steady stream of such images for many years to come. But there are happier sides to Africa too, some of which have been documented by native photographers like Malick Sidibé.
Sidibé, who was born in the 1930s, has spent a long career taking portraits of his fellow citizens in Bamako, Mali. Up until recently, few Malian families could afford to buy cameras, so it was customary for people to visit a studio photographer when they wanted to document something significant–from the birth of a baby to a new hairstyle or motorbike. In Sidibé’s portraits you see pride and a sense of occasion, but there’s also a playfulness in the way he gets his subjects to pose, shirt-sleeves rolled up, sunglasses covering their eyes, mimicking styles from the covers of magazines and pop music albums.
This week, Sanna Dullaway’s colorized versions of famous historic photographs went viral on the Internet, drawing both admiration and alarm. Dullaway had picked some truly iconic photographs to colorize, from Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother to Eddie Adams’ famous shot of a Vietnamese general executing a Vietcong prisoner during the opening stages of the Tet Offensive. The young Swede (who has just launched a business colorizing old family snapshots) displayed these color versions side-by-side with the originals. Suddenly, figures and scenes long burned into our minds in their original black-and-white incarnations were popping out in glorious color—rusty reds, rich golds, the blue of cornflowers and irises. The images spread quickly on news sites and Facebook feeds—and then some people got mad.
“A parasitical one trick pony grazing on the shoulders of giants,” Dullaway was called in one Facebook photography thread, while someone else excoriated her for “coloring that like a coloring book.” “Sickening” and “inexcusable” were other adjectives thrown out. Some were more generous, admiring Dullaway’s technique and color choices, and writing that it had given them a new appreciation of the original work.
I was intrigued by this response, and by the protectiveness people felt toward these images. Personally I found them fascinating, and not confusing or deceptive since they were printed side-by-side with the original black-and-whites.
Small, light and fast, the Leica was the cellphone camera of its day. When it launched in the 1920s, professional photographers took to the streets with it and captured quick, spontaneous images that hadn’t been possible with their lumbering view cameras. Perhaps no group used the camera better in its early days than the New York Photo League, a ragtag band of urban photographers who were equally passionate about politics and aesthetics. In the 1930s and 40s, their documentation would provide a vibrant record of everyday life in New York City.
The Radical Camera: The New York Photo League 1936-1951, now at the Jewish Museum, pays tribute to the ninety-some photographers involved in this short-lived, feisty little organization. Notably, most Photo League members came from modest backgrounds (a lot were first-generation American Jews). Their aim was to throw light on their own poor neighborhoods and others, and by doing so, to effect social change. Not for them the beautiful, static landscapes being captured by Ansel Adams in the same years; instead, they turned their lenses on the teeming streets of the Lower East Side and Harlem, where children played in abandoned buildings and garbage littered the streets.
Thanks to popular television shows like HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Ken Burns’ new PBS documentary series Prohibition, we’re well informed about what went on socially and politically in the 1920s, from the rise of the Mafia to the new freedoms women enjoyed as voters and flappers. But what about visual art? What did painters, sculptors and photographers produce during the ten years between the Great War and the Great Depression?
Youth and Beauty (Skira Rizzoli), a beautiful coffee-table book accompanying an exhibition opening at the Brooklyn Museum in October, gives plentiful answers to that question. Of course, we know what happened artistically in postwar Europe: it was the Golden Age of Modernism, when artists like Picasso, Mondrian and Kandinsky were producing some of their best work. Newly mature, Modernism bore its own wild children–Dada, Surrealism and Futurism among them.
It can be hard, sometimes, to wrap our heads around the injustice faced by people overseas. We know that countries like Iran, Afghanistan and Burma are repressive places, but news stories about them can seem a little abstract and faraway. Without personal stories, we’re left with just a vague sense of what the injustice means.
That’s where an event like the Human Rights Watch Film Festival comes in. Now in its 22nd year, the festival (which takes place from June 16-30 in New York) shows how individuals are affected by repression and injustice. Powerful and personal, these films take us beyond the surface, looking into the lives of ordinary people with insight, sensitivity and humor.
You might get a chill, for example, when you watch the story of Naty, a Peruvian maid working in Spain to support her family–then realize that plenty of Natys have cleaned your room and brought you food. Mikael Wiström and Alberto Herskovits’ film Familia shows Naty’s intense loneliness and the price paid by her family in Peru, especially her young son. It’s a story that’s heartbreakingly familiar, yet intensely individual too.
In China, challenging the official view of history can be a dangerous business. Recently, director Lu Chuan found this out when his film, City of Life and Death, was released. “Traitor!” was a common headline in news articles about the movie; soon, almost every radio and television channel in the country was discussing it, and Lu found himself targeted by vicious hate mail and death threats.
The movie that sparked this firestorm is not obviously provocative–it doesn’t imagine a sex life for Chairman Mao or take the side of students in the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. Set in 1937, City of Life and Death traces the story of the infamous Nanking massacre, or Rape of Nanking, when Japanese troops stormed China’s former capital city and killed and raped at will. Knowing they were overwhelmed, the Chinese high command deserted the city, leaving civilians unprotected. By the time Japanese troops were reined in six weeks later, some 300,000 civilians had died.
Shot beautifully in black and white, with powerful performances and an understated script, City of Life and Death takes an unblinking look at the terrible events of the massacre. Obliquely, it tells the story of John Rabe, a Nazi-affiliated German businessman who set up a “Safety Zone” in the city, saving thousands of lives. But mostly it’s about the ordinary people, on both sides, who got caught up in the tragedy. Small details–like Japanese soldiers cracking open bottles of soda pop they find on the street after storming the city–only serve to make the depictions of casual violence and rape more shocking.