Vivian Maier, the street photographer and her incredible story, has had me under her spell since I first explored street photography. Spyros gave me the taste, the “push” into the genre, but it’s Maier who pulled me in and refused to let me go. It was a perfect storm. As I stumbled into street, Vivian Maier’s story was exploding and it’s draw was irresistible. The story was so compelling and the relatively few pictures released were wonderful. The inspiration was immediate. I searched fervently for all the images the internet could cough up. I watched the BBC documentary, “Who Took Nanny’s Pictures”. Soon after, John Maloof’s documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier” came out and I watched it as soon as it was available. And then I thought my cup was full, because I began researching other street photography greats. The big names. I had shelved Maier, in my mind, as I explored well-known and respected pioneers of street. The more I consumed, the further back the images were pushed in my mind.
Vivian Maier: Street Photographer
Fast forward to the present, and I wanted to begin acquiring photo books. Vivian Maier: Street Photographer (Powerhouse Books, 2011) was on my short list of first purchases. As I flip through the pages, I ask myself, “why did I wait so long?”
By now, I’m sure most of you know the story of Vivian Maier(1926-2009), or have, at least, heard of it. For almost forty years she worked as a nanny in the United States, mostly in Chicago. But during that time, she took over 100,000 photographs. And those photographs, for the most part, are what we categorize as street photography today. And her images are splendid. More on that later. The most amazing thing is that no one, even Maier herself, ever saw most of the images. Most of her film went undeveloped. It wasn’t until John Maloof, editor of “Vivian Maier: Street Photographer”, along with two others, bought Maier’s work from a Chicago thrift auction in 2007. Maier, at the time could no longer afford to keep her storage space and that is why they were auctioned off. Maloof, who bought his portion of the images (estimated to be roughly 90 percent of her work) because he was working on a book on the history of his Chicago neighborhood had no idea who Maier was. It wasn’t until her death two years later, that he finally had a clue who she was via her obituary. Later that year he began showing her images online and the rest, as they say, is history. The excitement over her work began to sizzle then explode. Photographers and lovers of photography took notice and a star, albeit posthumously, was born. In 2011, “Vivian Maier: Street Photographer” was published.
It would be impossible to review this book in any “objective” sense, so we’ll consider this more of an appreciation. An appreciation in the sense that it made me fall in love with Maier’s work all over again. It’s one thing to view her work online, even if from a fine resolution monitor, or to see them on a big screen from the documentaries. It’s an entirely other thing to view them in print. To have it laid out in front of you, by the light of your favorite reading lamp, and to be able to just linger. The difference is impressive. Hard to put into words, but it’s definitely there. For me, the photo book isn’t fast food, a la the internet, but it’s more gourmet dining. It allows you to savor the images and simply get lost in them.
With “Vivian Maier: Street Photographer”, I got lost early and often. At 10×11″ and 136 pages, the book offers a generous format in which to dive into her work. Immediately I fell deeper in love with the street portraiture. And though Maier herself did not select the images for print, the portraits she chose to take are testimony to the claim she was a “natural”. She had the eye and the skill. Her selection of subjects was superb. From the innocence of childhood to the broke-down, hardscrabble life on the streets of the destitute, Maier could find the simple and complex beauties of a face and captured in it with great skill. The detail often breathtaking and the shots… candid. All walks of life seem to be eligible candidates in her viewfinder. The perspective from which she shot, which was often waist-level, invokes a submissive feel in the viewer, making the mages all the more powerful. But Maier didn’t limit herself to the street portrait.
Knowing that Maier is considered an enigma, a mystery, the photos that aren’t portraits only reinforce the labels given and assumptions made. Maier seems, in this small sample of her work, to not be committed to one particular style. I found her urban landscapes to be most pleasing. With some reminding me of Walker Evans’ work. Also present are bits of humor and grim reality. The latter exhibited with images of dead animals on the street and even a Weegee-esque scene showing a policeman dragging a bloodied man in the street. Maier also played with light, using architecture, angles and shadows to get some compositions with a more avant-garde feel than her other images.
But Vivian Maier’s bread-and-butter are the shots with the human element as the focus. Her skill with portraits aid in making her “everyday life” captures truly shine. A man asleep at his post in a newsstand. The old woman selling pretzels on the street.The father cleaning something off the sole off his son’s shoe. Maier had the eye for street photography, and this collection is proof. But to have the eye is one thing. Maier also had the technique, the skill. The quality of the images in the collection, all monochrome and sepia, is outstanding. The detail amazing.
In all, “Vivian Maier: Street Photographer” is a beautiful sample document of this street photographer’s work. The quality of the copy I purchased(a steal on Amazon US at less than 25 bucks) was mostly nice, with only some minor streaking on the darkest parts of a few images. I’m sure there are higher quality photo books out there, but this is definitely a good value.
But this book left me with more questions than answers about Vivian Maier. And that’s not a bad thing, mind you. It’s actually what makes her story all the more compelling. I’m left to wonder what made her tick as a photographer. Who were her influences? And the “why’s”. Why did she leave all that undeveloped film? Why did she not aggressively pursue any sort of notoriety or showings? I think it’s a pretty safe bet that she shot all that film for herself, to satisfy a burning creative urge. But to not see the results. Specifically, to not want to see the results… is astounding. There will always be mystery surrounding Vivian Maier, that’s what makes the story all the more amazing. However, there would be no mystery, no story, if it wasn’t for the work itself that spawned it… her images. And for those images, like the ones in this book, we should be thankful.
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