Street Photography Through the Eyes of Vivian Maier
Welcome to another in the series introducing you to some of the masters of photography. This time it is all about the legend that is Vivian Maier. Her work is incredible, and her story is, let's face it, pretty heartbreaking, and her legacy is perhaps something she didn't even want to leave... I'm going to kick off with a brief bio, throw in some quotes, show you some videos, inspire you with her photos, link you up to some books, and sum up my key take-aways from her wonderful work.
"If you really have something to say better to be behind the camera than in front of it." — Vivian Maier
Self Portrait © Vivian Maier
A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY
Without a doubt Vivian Maier is one of the best and “purest” street photographers to date (in my humble opinion anyway!). She made pictures for pleasure out of sheer curiosity for her surroundings, other people, and herself, and probably with little to no outside influence. And without anyone in mind to share her work with it would have been entirely uncensored... How much do we censor what we shoot today, based on what we think we should be photographing / looking for, based on street photography trends, themes and motifs?
Her story is as remarkable as her photography, because her work may have been unknown and lost for ever had it not been for a man called John Maloof who bought some boxes from her rented storage unit at auction. The boxes contained 1000s of negatives, prints and undeveloped rolls of film, and thankfully (for us) he had enough passion and interest in them to curate a body of work. There were actually also two other collectors, Ron Slattery and Randy Prow, who found some of her prints and negatives around the same time, but it was John Maloof that made it his job to introduce the world to Vivian Maier's legacy.
"We have to make room for other people. It's a wheel – you get on, you go to the end, and someone else has the same opportunity to go to the end, and so on, and somebody else takes their place." — Vivian Maier
Vivian Dorothy Maier was born in New York but spent her childhood in France, returning to the US to eventually settle in Chicago working as a nanny. She has been described by people who knew her (including some of the children she looked after) as eccentric - sometimes using assumed names, sometimes speaking with a questionable accent, sometimes being nice and sometimes, well, nasty! Maybe she found humans more relatable as photographic subjects?
Over three decades, she obsessively wandered the streets of the city with her Rolleiflex, shooting anything, everything and anybody she found curious, often dragging the kids she was nannying with her. She was particularly drawn to children and the marginalised of society. Sadly she came upon hard times financially, and could no longer afford to pay for the unit she used to store her work - the very same one that was auctioned off for non-payment two years before she died in 2009 from a head injury (after a slip on some ice).
She has been described as an intensely private and reclusive person, so there are some ethical questions about the posthumous profit of her work. Would she have wanted to show it? But then again how much about her story is actually real, and how much is a created narrative to make her a more mysterious figure...? Some accounts exist that she did want to share her work, as she was apparently intensely proud of her photographs. But as her biography has been pieced together through the things she left behind and from a few people who knew or had met her, we don't really know for sure what the true story is. There are hints, too, of a dark childhood that she wanted to forget...
For a more in-depth biography and pretty much everything else head here: http://www.vivianmaier.com/about-vivian-maier/
© Vivian Maier
Overall I’m just grateful we are privileged enough to see her incredible talent. Imagine if someone else had found her stash other than John Maloof?! We might never have found out about her!
And you will know what I mean if you have watched the award-winning movie about her story: "Finding Vivian Maier" (currently on Amazon Prime).
Check out the trailer:
"AN UNPOPULAR OPINION"
Ted Forbes is a photographer and filmmaker best known for his YouTube channel The Art of Photography, and he has a few things to say about Vivian Maier's work. He introduces the video with the warning that he has an unpopular opinion. You can watch the video for yourself, and hear it straight from the Forbes' mouth - but in short he thinks she's good, but she's not that good! Kind of "what's all the fuss about"?! He also takes issue with her work being curated by inexperienced curators...
Hmmmm... well, if "inexperienced" curators can select so many incredible photographs then surely that's testament to the high standard of Maier's work - as the implication is that better work must have been missed. Dang those inexperienced curators! But the truth is Maloof didn't just rely on his own taste when curating - he turned to experienced pros for help and guidance. And while MoMA turned down the opportunity to show her work (the fools!), Maloof did consult with photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who marvelled at Maier's talent and compared her to the greats such as Arbus, Frank and Levitt! And you'll see from the film that living legend Joel Meyerowitz rated her highly as a photographer.
Anyway, you only have to take a look at her contact sheets to see how high her "hit rate" was. The woman was a genius behind a camera dammit!!!
© Vivian Maier
Perhaps because her work wasn't part of the zeitgeist of photography during her lifetime, and therefore not ingrained in the collective unconscious of street photography (where the work of the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson reside) makes Forbes unable to see it other than through the lens (pardon the pun!) of the time in which it was discovered? Let's face it there is some work created by those we revere as "masters" that wouldn't pass muster if it was made today! Or is that just my own "unpopular opinion"?!
Anyway back to Vivian! I always thought of her as a black and white photographer until I saw a small exhibition of her colour work a couple of years ago at Beetles & Huxley in London, and I was blown away.This more recent work could have been shot today, if you can see beyond the things that denote the era.
© Vivian Maier
But what really really blows me away, and what makes her, for me, one of the best of the best is that she never studied photography, was seemingly without any outside influence, had no mentor, no-one telling her what they liked and what they didn't, no audience sharing an opinion. Like I said in the intro, she was "pure"! Or maybe that's just the romantic story I want to tell myself about her life...
MY TAKE-AWAY FROM HER WORK
I like to reverse engineer photography that I think is good, as I want to understand what makes it good, and what strikes me most about Vivian Maier's photography is that we are truly seeing the world uncensored through her eyes. There's almost a childlike curiosity in the observations she captured with her camera, be it something happening, someone interesting or some detail. And I should mention she also made films and recorded interviews with people. Her curiosity was endless!
And you can see, through her very extensive collection of self-portraits that she was equally curious about herself. Today the "selfie" seems a little narcissistic when done as excessively as Maier photographed herself (sorry selfie takers!), but for me she was simply curious. Maybe (if it's true that she was reclusive, and a felt a bit separate or "other" from the world) this was a way of her integrating herself into the world, albeit only in the moment she photographed...
Her self portraits are fascinating - some are playful, others are abstract... she used reflections in windows and actual mirrors, as well as her shadow juxtaposed on things. The woman was creative AF - come on. Fight me!
"I am a sort of spy" — Vivian Maier
FIND OUT MORE!
Now, pop the kettle on and watch this conversation John Maloof and Charlie Siskel who made the film (but also definitely watch the film if you haven't already.
And then check this out... the plot thickens. Does Maloof have the right to share and profit from her work? Or does her legacy have value solely thanks to Maloof, and the fact he found, printed and shared it? You decide! (cue dramatic music):
Also if that's not a thick enough plot for you - here's more... A copyright attorney, David C. Deal, found a family member who he claimed was the rightful owner of Maier's copyright, and they sued! In other words, some money-grabbing lawyer persuaded some long lost relative, who didn't even know he was related, to profit off her post-humous success (whaaaaaat?!)
And finally check out these books:
Vivian Maier: Street Photographer by John Maloof
[The definitive Maier monograph]
Vivian Maier: The Color Work by Colin Westerbeck
Vivian Maier Developed: Ann Marks
[The brand new book published 2022, and by all accounts brilliant]
It's easy to take Vivian Maier's work for granted if you just see a photo here and there, but when you take a long hard look at it, you'll be taking long hard look at yourself, and you'll marvelling at the wonderfully curious way she viewed the world. And such a deep and endless curiosity! And, I have been so curious about the extent of her curiosity, and that she has such a curious story, that something I now teach on my workshops is The Curiosity Principle (a term I made up!!), and it's all down to Vivian Maier. Cheers Viv, you rock!
Want to learn about The Curiosity Principle and more? Join me on a workshop, work with me 1-2-1 or get access to some digital resources to DIY.
Words © Polly Rusyn | Pictures © Vivian Maier | Books all available from Amazon. If you buy through these links I get a small commission, you pay nothing extra but you help me keep the lights on! Thank you so much for reading this post.