View from the lunch counter – North Wells Street, Chicago
View from the lunch counter – North Wells Street, Chicago
A late summer day (or would it be early fall?) – Millennium Park, Chicago.
This picture makes me smile – it looks like the cab is keeping pace with the man during a lunchtime walk. Or maybe the man is walking with the cab. Either way, I walked the streets and “shot from the hip.” It’s fun seeing what appears within the confines of my lens! (For the curious: This photo was shot on State Street in Chicago – note the old Marshall Field’s clock in the background. For the record, I don’t care who owns it or what it’s called…it will always be Marshall Field’s to me!)
Thousands, even millions followed her steps years before and years into the future as well. A smartly dressed woman walks a familiar corridor framed by colossal pillars on her left and smooth columns alternating with shiny glass windows on her right. Contrasting horizontal lines of sidewalk, of venetian blinds at half-mast, of long shadows of columns, draw the woman in silent rhythm toward a lighted archway at the end.
In this photograph, Maier captures patterns and textures of daily living – the subject’s womanly curves accented by the flow of fabric, mid- to late-afternoon sun highlights the top of her hat, warming her slightly rounded shoulders and rippling along the gathers of her sashaying skirt as she walks.
Her path, like those who came before and those of us to follow leads to the gateway of light straight ahead. Silhouettes of three women turned inward toward one another can be seen at the end. Perhaps they are her goal – she is meeting them for an early supper. Or perhaps she is alone, always alone, their presence emphasizing her isolation.
Those familiar with Chicago might have a sense (as I did) of déjà vu – knowing that they have walked this woman’s path either in life or in a dream. I experienced that peculiar sensation, that nagging feeling of knowing a place as I viewed this photo at the Cultural Center. Later, walking back to the train station and turning a corner, there it was: the scene Maier captured more than a half-century before. The light nearly the same. The colossal pillars and mirror-like windows and horizontal shadows, the same. The feeling was a bit surreal, yet it was comforting to know that Maier had walked the same steps, taken a breath and made a photograph that was being appreciated so many years later.
Maier’s photographs of children often reflect on the innocence of youth contrasted with the harsher realities of the streets. This theme is evident in a pair of young girls – sisters, perhaps – who stare into our souls, one with curiosity and the other girl with apprehension.
Maier’s flawless composition in “Untitled” (a majority of Maier’s works are untitled) frames the subjects naturally within the light and shadows of a shop doorway in Canada. Lighting and texture differences provide visual interest with the pattern of a white sign at the top left juxtaposed with the darker window on the right mirrored by dark wood at the bottom left contrasting with a white sign on the right. The pattern repeats in the girls as well: in the foreground, the elder girl’s milky complexion and light eyes contrast with her jumper’s dark, heavy fabric while behind her and to the left, the younger girl’s dark hair and skin contrast beautifully with her light-colored dress.
Reflections in the window bring our eyes from light to dark to light to dark, and then back to the girls’ haunting gazes.
Perhaps the girls played in the framework of their imaginations until suddenly interrupted by Maier and her Rolleiflex pointed in their direction. Maybe Maier broke traditional street photography rules, asking to take their photographs – and this was their response.
Like the Chicago girl with her string, the children are dirty and rather unkempt – quite different from the well-to-do children with whom Maier worked as a nanny throughout her adult life. As she wandered city streets during her free time, making photographs of day-to-day (and night-to-night) life, she might have identified more with her subjects than with the people in whose homes she lived.
Chicago, Ill., June 16, 1956
In “Chicago, Ill., June 16, 1956,” Maier presents a lonely theme once again, this time without despair. A young girl gazes slightly upward into our eyes, wondering whether we will accept, reject or simply ignore her as others do. Soft light illuminates tendrils of hair surrounding one side of her face, plays off the curve of her cheek, her belly and slightly developed breasts. She is unsure, a finger in her mouth pulling her lip into a pout. We interrupted her play – most likely cat’s cradle, given the string wrapped around her hands and extending behind her, a continuation of the horizontal lines in the stripes of her shirt. The stripes and string anchor her to a dark unknown at the right side of the photograph, giving the illusion that she may be tied in place.
Maier perfectly captures contrasting textures and the tiniest details in this photograph – rough-sawn, organic edges of the wood doorframe contrast with the smoother gray of cement steps at the bottom left and the roundness of her body. The twisted texture of the string, the silkiness of her hair, the holes in her too-small shirt beg for attention. She seems unkempt and uncared for, her uneven bangs far too short, her clothing far too small, the skin on her arms sporting far too much dirt. “Where are her parents?” Maier asks through the little girls’ eyes – and will we abandon her to the street as well?
New York, NY 1953
Maier clearly and purposefully uses aesthetic elements in her work, capturing the souls of her subjects and at times calling attention to class differentiation and social injustice. In “New York, NY 1953,” she highlights contrasting textures of harsh substances and soft fabrics surrounding her subject, a crumpled heap of humanity. Contrasting horizontal and vertical lines create the framework in which he is centered, moving us to see tiny details that might take us from repugnance to compassion. The presence of a ring around his right middle finger suggests some sort of connection to “normal” life. His suit, his shoes may once have been fine; now they are as worn out as his scorned soul.
Maier knows that we will hurry past him as he sits in his lonely gutter. Her photograph gives us time to see him as a hurting human being mourning a lost life – and reminds us that we can easily be a step or two away from that gutter ourselves. Perhaps, too, Maier felt some sort of connection to the man’s pain and loneliness. “Don’t look at me!” he shouts with his body. Maybe her photographs were her way of interacting with the world while controlling its interaction with her: “Don’t look at me!” she shouts in silence, hiding behind her lens in the anonymity of the streets.
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