“Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows” at the Photography Center NW

Like the work of another Chicago artist, the outsider collage and story genius Henry Darger, Vivian Maier’s brilliant photographs remained hidden throughout her lifetime. Though she took pictures wherever she lived or visited, most record the streets and places where she roamed…New York and then Chicago and its suburbs in the ‘50s and ‘60s. She captured rich and poor, children, trees, street musicians, markets, discarded newspapers, transportation hubs, and all else that makes up urban life.

Maier supported herself as a nanny (even for a time with the Phil Donahue family), but taking pictures was her passion. Yet more than 100,000 of her negatives wound up in storage lockers whose contents were auctioned off in 2007 for failure to pay the rent. The ill and impoverished Maier died in 2009 at 82.

Fortunately the buyers, John Maloof and Jeffrey Goldstein, recognized the significance of what each had acquired. John Maloof, an amateur historian, bought as many as he could and has since reconstructed most of the Maier archive. Mr. Goldstein who is now president of Vivian Maier Prints organized the exhibition currently showing at the Photo Center NW. Master printers Ron Gordon and Sandra Steinbrecher created the silver gelatin works on exhibition by adapting the aesthetics and technologies of the 1950s and ‘60s to give them historical authenticity.

The exhibition has humor and pathos. We get a sense of the grit of the city as well as the calm and abundance of the suburbs. Whether it’s a pair of rubber garden gloves lying in front of a window, or the grizzled face of the old lady in the flowered hat, the pictures draw you in as they demand a story. You have to wonder whatever happened to that amorous couple in the midst of the crowd on the sandy beach. Did the police eventually arrest that disheveled man they were talking to? And what became of that plump baby testing out the waters of Lake Michigan?

Maier, in the tradition of the great street photographers of the past, gives us a window through which to look at a time and a place. And just think, she never saw any of her work printed as art photography.

Through March 23 at Photo Center NW, 900 12th Ave., Seattle (206 720-7222 or www.pcnw.org)

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