Art of Photography

Rob Townsend

Book: Vivian Maier – Street Photographer

6 Comments

I was introduced to the work of this elusive street photographer by the documentary ‘Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?’, and I wrote a blog post that covered it. At the time I downloaded this book [1] to my iPad, which with hindsight was a silly mistake; the images were too small, and I couldn’t really engage with the subject matter. Thankfully I got the good old-fashioned print version as a Christmas present, and in this I saw so much more, and came to appreciate the quality of her work.

You can google her story but in a sentence: she took tens of thousands of shots on US city streets but none were seen until after her death; she is posthumously feted as the great unsung heroine of street photography. So this collection, like the other books and exhibitions being built out of her legacy, had no input from the photographer herself since she clicked the shutter. Which is just one of the aspects that makes the sheer quality of her work astonishing; she never had feedback on her work. She just churned it out, seemingly for nothing but her own pleasure.

But what of the actual work itself?

Composition

For someone apparently untutored she had a fantastic natural eye for a great photograph. Looking at the available contact sheets on the official Vivian Maier website, it does seem that her ‘keeper’ ratio is higher than average, and it is worth noting that for most of her shooting life (can’t really use the word ‘career’ here) she used a Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera, which took films of only 12 exposures. So she was by necessity fairly selective about what she shot, unlike 35mm shooters used to 36-exposure film (and totally spoilt digital photographers who can shoot til the battery or memory card gives up). Her compositional skills were, on the evidence of the images curated here, exemplary.

She had a few identifiable compositional styles. Portraits often featured a secondary point of interest that rewarded deeper viewing after the initial focus on the subject’s face, such as the toy that a child is holding, or an unusual item of clothing. In other images she created a sense of mystery, of unresolved narrative by excluding certain elements; what are those children looking up at, out of the frame? why is that man sleeping in his car? Another of her stylistic approaches is the wide architectural shot with person in context for scale.

If I had to identify any flaw – which may come across as spectacularly arrogant, but is relevant here in the context that she didn’t get any feedback or critique, so it’s an exercise in imagining what her peers may have said to her at the time – the one that springs to mind is her over-reliance on centrally-placed subjects. This may in part be an effect of her shooting in 1:1 ratio, where maybe one is just naturally more inclined to place your subject centrally, but in a few instances it lends the image an overly static feel that is at odds with the subject matter itself. In some instances I found myself placing a hand over part of the image in a crude attempt to re-crop it in my mind.

While it’s difficult to date the images accurately, there does seem to have been a progression from quite traditional ‘straight-on’ shots to more creative, often geometric compositions. In particular, the images where she juxtaposed people and architecture display some wonderful shapes and lines. My assumption is that these more compositionally complex images came later as she gained confidence, or just got bored and wanted to experiment a little.

Subject matter

There isn’t a single, strong thematic thread through her work, beyond the level of ‘city street life’; it’s a mixture of portraits (posed and candid, children and adults, solo and groups, plus some self-portraits in reflections), architecture and in a few cases borderline abstract treatments of city street details. Again, as with many aspects of her work this eclectic spread of subject matter may be down to the fact that she never showed her work, never sought opinions, never specialised too much based on external feedback. In this respect she maintained the broad mindset of an amateur. From wider reading I understand that she also worked in colour, video and audio – so this book represents a reasonably contained curation of her output, and it still reasonably eclectic.

It is notable that the content of her work does seem to get darker in mood over the period covered by the book; the work that appears to be from the 1950s is typified by shots of families, especially children, while the later work moving into the late 1960s features down-and-outs, drunks and outsiders. Some of the later work is devoid of people, simply recording the deterioration of the city around her. In this her output can be seen as a parallel of the mood of the nation over the post-war decades.

Legacy

Where to place Maier in the history of street photography? It’s a curious conundrum; on the face of it it would appear that her style would have inspired those who followed – some of her ‘outsider’ portraits are almost Arbus before Arbus – and yet that patently can’t have been the case as she remained hidden throughout her life. So one must surmise that the development of street photography was broadly following a path forged not by one individual but by a vague ‘movement’ that Maier was a part of, albeit an unknown one. Meaning: the same factors that influenced Maier (technology, socio-economic, artistic) will have influenced others, who in turn influenced others after them. Maier is kind of a belatedly-discovered link, not a missing link as such, more one that corroborates the developments demonstrated by others.

One aspect of this book, and the other work I’ve seen of Maier’s, is that it’s all from the 1950s and 1960s, and yet it’s known that she carried on at the same level of output until the late 1990s. Why is her published work so narrowly curated? Is it because this is her best work, and she peaked and then declined to the point where the only remarkable aspect of her work was its quantity? Or is it that a central attraction of her work is the ‘time capsule’ nostalgia element? Or is it simply that the curators of her legacy are saving the rest up for future publishing? (My assumption is a combination of the first two points: quality peaking early and nostalgic interest).

In summary, an excellent collection of sometimes extraordinarily good images. Look beyond the quirky backstory and there is some truly great street photography here.

1. Maier, V and Maloof, J. 2011. Street photographer. New York: Powerhouse

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6 thoughts on “Book: Vivian Maier – Street Photographer

  1. This is a book that I keep hearing about and so one that I must investigate soon.
    As an aside, have you ever had any feedback on using copyrighted images on your blog? It’s something that I’d like to do to demonstrate various themes, but the study guide warns against it.

    • Hi,

      Never had any specific feedback but I always link directly to the original source (i.e. don’t host the image myself on WordPress) and include a © notice. I think, from my memory of reading the original advice on this subject, this is normally acceptable to copyright holders…

      Rob

  2. As Rob’s tutor I should probably weigh in here. Copyright is a thorny issue when it comes to student blogs and the golden rule is if there is any doubt then don’t post the image. The caveat is the exception for ‘review and critique’ within the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act. This allows reproduction of photographs (other than for the reporting of news) when they are being reviewed or critiqued. This means you should be fine if you are writing about a piece of work to include an example, but you should not use a photograph without permission to just add more general illustration to an article. So in practice if you went to an exhibition of mine of a series of forest images and wrote a review then you would be able to include an image, ideally referencing and reviewing that specific image in the text, but you could not use one of my pictures without permission to illustrate a story you had written on trees. In either case, it is normally best practice to ask the copyright holder if you have any doubts and if paranoid, keep the blog offline.

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