Vivian Maier’s Jewish Chicago
The recently discovered street photographer trained her lens on my family—and a lost, genteel world
Vivian was clearly restless in our world, but she lived in Highland Park for 16 years, and her camera (sometimes more than one) was always around her neck. I have two memories of her that stand out, from when I was 7 or 8 years old. The first is from a beautiful, warm afternoon and someone—maybe Vivian—had the idea to enter the gates of Ravinia Park, which wasn’t far from where we lived. I was with a group of children, and we were running like crazy. When we exhausted ourselves, we collapsed on the grass near a garden with a fountain and Vivian was at arms-length from us, looking down into her viewfinder. I remember thinking it was strange because she was very still and didn’t look up, she didn’t look up at us. At the same time, I remember being perfectly comfortable in her silence. The second memory is of her ringing the doorbell to our house. I was beside myself with excitement. Vivian climbed the stairs, walked down a little hall and into a bedroom. She had come to look at a camera, to examine the mechanism. Maybe the camera was broken or needed adjustment. She said a few words in her deadpan voice, turned around, went down the stairs, opened the door, and walked out.
Richard Cahan and Michael Williams, the authors of Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, have suggested that shooting pictures may have been Vivian’s way of keeping a diary or remembering what she saw. My sense is that Vivian, a shutterbug in the purest sense of the word, depended upon the process of framing—setting up a composition in the viewfinder and shooting—in order to navigate the world. Of her huge oeuvre, photographs ranging from Champsaur to the Bronx, to Maxwell Street, and Shanghai, the images from Highland Park represent only a fraction of her output. But they’re special, characteristic because of the architectonic set-up and balance, the photographer’s consummate understanding of the play of light and shadow, her self-confidence and interest in the way character and story can be revealed in an unrehearsed instant. Her subjects can be sober or humorous, and they’re often plunged in thought. The moments she captures are invariably weighted with authenticity.
I’ve looked at the images on the contact sheet from Field Day, 1961. Sometimes ungraceful or unflattering, the pictures show people Vivian would have known from the neighborhood. Photos can sometimes bring back noisiness. These catch the commotion, the frantic business of the day. More pointedly, the photographic eye notices how different parents attend to different children. A little boy tipping his empty soda bottle succeeds in getting the last drop from his straw while his mother and father look on with smiles. An exhausted little girl scowls into the sun, and her mother turns away. A group of first-grade boys dribble with the playground ball, posturing like professionals, and Vivian experiments with the photographic challenge of catching the action. In photos of the Gensburg boys you sense her gentle humor in their tidy crew cuts. There’s a wonderful picture of 6-year-old Johnny, one hand holding what looks to be a powdered doughnut to his mouth, the other gripping a coke bottle, crumbs on his cheeks and nose. Someone (again, maybe Vivian) had tucked a paper napkin at his waistband and tied the string of a balloon above his elbow. I think I have a trace memory, puzzling at the sight of him in his old-fashioned pedal pushers, balloon string on his elbow.
Vivian’s photographs get to the essence of a fleeting moment in our particular community in the middle of the last century—its affluence, insecurity, and instability—a feeling, perhaps, of having arrived and of being lost. They’ve taken me back to names I haven’t thought about in years—Audrey Naiditch, Lorry Goffen, David Saltiel, Jane Rosenthal, Joel Mann, Stan Tokoph, the first-grade teacher Mrs. Picchetti, our gym teacher Andy Voisard—and things—chiffon scarves, madras shorts, saddle shoes, bushel baskets, cotton gym suits with rust-proof snaps and elasticized legs. There is a panoramic shot of the whole crowd of parents and children massed across the blacktop and another shows booths with easels and tubs of water arrayed at the wall of the school building. Some of us older children were managing the games. One of the teachers, maybe our principal, Mr. Beam, was dressed as a clown, and the parents’ organization had arranged a hayride. It all seems to have come out of Saturday Evening Post except it was a little bit of a ruse suggesting that we, like a lot of American Jews in the early 1960s, were just slightly uncomfortable with borrowed tradition.
The photograph of my brother I saw at the Kasher Gallery tells something of that story. Like many of Vivian’s images, the formal composition is meticulous. The background architecture, the school building, a chain link fence, as well as chalk lines left from a relay race, supply a grid for the adults and children informally grouped in the schoolyard. Vivian’s photographic eye is neutral. She focuses on a ball traveling toward John Gensburg’s outstretched arms. The camera lands on my mother with her fashionable ducktail haircut and great summer pocketbook. The woman next to her holds what looks to be a pile of handbags and crosses her knee for balance, raising her heel out of her pump. Avron Gensburg sportingly repeats the gesture. Joy Richman smiles at his side, holding a cigarette and placing her hand on her hip. Her daughter turns in another direction. My mom and her friend are lost in separate thoughts. Only my brother aims his gaze directly into the camera. This is a delicate moment when people who know one another well are together but not joined, and it says something inarguably truthful about the precariousness, fragmentation, even a feeling of loss in our community.
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