‘See All About It’ finds photographer Vivian Maier

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Jason Jaacks/Courtesy

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In the sunny and damp courtyard of North Gate Hall, a crowd gathered for an inauguration Wednesday afternoon.

North Gate Hall, made of redwood and glass, once housed the department of architecture. Now the Berkeley School of Journalism resides there, and its hallways, filled with natural light, display the newly endowed Reva and David Logan Gallery of Documentary Photography. The gallery itself showcases even more gifts — black, white and intimate — with “See All About It,” a collection of Vivian Maier’s newspaper portraits.

Vivian Maier was a nanny and self-taught photographer who began her lifelong obsession in the 1940s in downtown and suburban Chicago. She became famous after her death and, even then, her rise to fame happened accidently. Maier rarely developed her own film, given that she lived on a modest income and it cost about three to five of today’s dollars to process a single photo. But so beautiful and captivating is her work that a lucky purchase and many long online dialogues drew her out of obscurity.

Now, much of it can be viewed on her official website. And the lucky buyer of her work, John Maloof, made the film, “Finding Vivian Maier,”  which will open at Shattuck Cinemas on April 11.

“In her photography, you see what Vivian was feeling,” says Jeffrey Goldstein, who owns the collection of Maier’s images, during the inaugural lecture, a recording of which will soon be available from the Graduate School of Journalism. Like a typical big lecture at UC Berkeley, the lecture hall overflowed with a poised, meditative audience who took up every seat, aisle space and window sill.

The lecture, which included Ken Light and Richard Cahan, prompted questions and comments from an audience that wanted to know what Vivian was like, what her politics were and more.

Maier was known in her hometown as the “bird lady.” She had but one friend, and was a staunch, liberal feminist. She was always interested in other people’s politics and life, whether they were open about it or not.

As a photographer, Vivian took a roll of film a day for decades. Seldom did she ever take the same shot twice. Her acquaintances never knew of the brilliance of her photography, and when they found out, they were sorry Vivian had never showed them her pictures and sorry that they had never inquired, although she always wore a twin-lense Rolleiflex around her neck. The vast, undeveloped collage that is her life remains mysterious to even the finest researchers. For instance, when Ken Light, the Reva and David professor of photojournalism at the J-School, researched her journey through the French countryside right after World War II, elder locals identified themselves as children in Vivian’s photos. They said that those photos were the only ones they have of their youth.

Vivian’s work brings the world to life. The Logan Foundation continues to help journalists in their pursuit of the truth — through their gift of this gallery, its current and future exhibitions and its establishment of a professorship in photography at the J-School.

The hallways of North Gate Hall offer views of the streets of Chicago as Vivian saw them, for the exhibit presents what Goldstein calls “her gift of capturing the small moments of the universe.”

“See All About It,” the inaugural exhibit of the Reva and David Logan Gallery of Documentary Photography will be on display from March 3 to May 1 at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Contact Josh Escobar at [email protected].