History professor ‘recreates an experience’ through photography exhibit

Alan Teller, adjunct professor of history, recently curated a photography exhibit for the Chicago History Museum.

The exhibit showcases images of 1950s and 1960s Chicago, all taken by street photographer Vivian Maier, a curious woman with a curious story. Maier was a suburban nanny who carried with her some 35 boxes from job to job. Nobody knew the contents of the boxes - 100,000 negatives - until a few years ago when she died.

“For her, the meaning was in making the images,” Teller said. “She was experiencing life through the camera.”

The museum contacted Teller and his business partner Frank Madsen to tell Maier’s story. After a series of meetings with the owner of the photographs and the museum curators, they decided they wanted to “create an experience through the exhibit that emulated how Vivian viewed the world.”

The result is a series of 45-inch square photographs, each carefully selected and sequenced, suspended from the ceiling. This allows gallery-goers to appreciate the artwork and to glimpse other visitors and other images through the space between the photographs.

The design, Teller said, “makes you look at the things the way she looked at them.”

Additionally, the surrounding walls feature 5-inch photographs in a continuous strip of 18 rolls of her photos, which Teller says, “shows you how she was thinking and how she was working.”

A soundtrack containing sounds of the time, such as car horns, train noises, and jazz, plays in the background.

Teller and Madsen’s business has done 100 exhibits all over the country, mostly in the areas of history and politics. He has hired Lake Forest College students to help with exhibits, and some of them have gone on to be curators themselves, he said.

Teller believes Chicago natives will appreciate the Maier exhibit because they can relate to some of the locations depicted in the photographs. The exhibit, he says, “documents a period of time that’s just gone.”

The exhibit opened a month ago, with hundreds of people lined up to attend, and will be up for about one year.