Book review: Vivian Maier, Street Photographer

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One of the more interesting, and popular, new photography books this year is a collection of street photographs from the 1950s and early ’60s, shot by (until very recently) unknown photographer Vivian Maier. She would have remained unknown, too, had a box of her negatives not been fortuitously purchased by local historian John Maloof. The circumstances of even this purchase were even more random: the contents of Maier’s storage locker were auctioned off by the company due to non-payment of account, raising all sorts of interesting issues over copyright and image ownership. Interestingly, the back of the book’s credits list ‘Photographs © Vivian Maier 2011’, even though the photographer herself died in 2009.

Aside from the images, perhaps the most compelling thing about Maier’s story is the fact that if it were not for a couple of very lucky chance occurrences, she would have remained completely unknown and forgotten as a photographer – definitely not for lack of talent, but simply because she did not get a lucky break, nor did she even go out and seek one. Born in 1926, in New York, Maier lived in both New York and Chicago; she worked for most of her adult life as a nanny and caretaker of a family, carrying a camera everywhere she went, and photographing everything and everybody she saw – however, the crucial point to note is that she didn’t show her images to anybody. This of course meant that nobody saw them.

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I’m guessing these images are from her earlier body of work.

All sorts of questions immediately come to mind, the foremost being, why? Every photographer with the slightest hint of self-pride would love to have their work exhibited, and for much less, frequently hold court with an iPad long after their audience has fallen asleep or started browsing pornography sites on their mobile phones out of boredom. Perhaps it was a confidence issue; maybe Maier didn’t think she was good enough compared to the photographers of the day – don’t forget, she was shooting in the Life/ Magnum-dominated era of photojournalism and reportage; technical limitations meant that the distinguishing factors between your images and the next guy’s were just light, timing and composition; never mind color, extreme DOF or perspective effects. There were few film emulsions available, and as a rule, everything looked like a television test pattern once it got dark.

Or perhaps it’s that crisis of self-confidence that got Maier out shooting in the first place. Unfortunately, due to the curation afterwards, it’s impossible to know what chronological order the images were shot in; but there are two or three clear styles visible in the book – from where she photographs scenes with people in them, to people, but furtively, and finally, people and nothing else. In the latter style, there’s an intensity of gaze from the subject into the camera, and it’s clear that at very least they were all aware of her photographing them; even this last category can perhaps be subdivided further into grab shots, and those where she had some relationship with the subject. The former are often filed with disapproving, suspicious or surprised expressions – this wasNew York, after all; the latter have intensity, soul, and an openness about them that only comes with familiarity.

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A later, more confident Vivian Maier?

One of the most difficult things for any photographer to do is edit their own images – and by edit, I don’t mean run through Photoshop. I know this feeling intimately; your photographs are like your children, and you don’ts ant to let them go. The problem is that objectively, like all children, there are better behaved ones than others…and without a certain level of detachment, it’s impossible to decide which one of them gets the scholarship to Harvard and which has to make do with the local polytechnic.

Over the course of her lifetime, Maier must have shot thousands of images – yet the book contains no more than about a hundred. As a curious, process-oriented photographer, I wonder what her outtakes look like – were there a lot of disasters? Did she work the scene in the style of the Magnum photographers, or was she a walking one-shot wonder? Or was it hard for Editor Maloof to choose what to leave out? Maybe there’s enough for a second book. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, Street Photographer is a hugely engaging book that everybody who’s ever attempted the genre can enjoy and appreciate; in fact, today’s ‘street photographers’ could definitely learn a thing of two from Maier. At the same time, it’s also a slightly sad tale of how you can be really quite talented at something, but either not realize it, or not have the opportunity to develop it. Like all satisfying narratives, however, there is a happy ending – Maier got her lucky break in the end, even if it she didn’t get to see it herself (Maier died in 2009, but the book was published in late 2011). Moral of the story: images need to be seen. Don’t leave it too late. MT

Vivian Maier, Street Photographer is available here on Amazon.


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  1. Just got my copy. What an amazing work. I’m so glad to have been alive, during the time these were being taken. It’s like looking back in time to see what, as a child i didn’t see. Really vital and full of life! Thanks again for the tip on this work.

  2. it’s the silver gelatin prints he signs.

  3. A question: how is the printing in this book?
    A thought: I visited and was somehow disturbed to learn that if you buy a print from the Greenburg Gallery, her posthumous dealer, it is advertised as being signed by John Maloofian. This probably ties in with the complex issues of copyright and ownership you mentioned, but it also bothers me.

    The garage-sale-school-of-art is the fate of the work of most of us, unless maybe it’s the dumpster-school-of-retrospectives. Earlier this week I was reading a review in the New York Times of a book titled Urne-Buriall by an 18th century physician named Thomas Browne. The review finished with this incredible quote from him: “Oblivion is not to be hired; The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been.”

    • Actually 17th century, not 18th century physician…

    • The printing is pretty good, but perhaps not as good as the Salgados I’ve seen – probably about on par with the Magnum Contact Sheets.

      There’s no way it could be signed by her since she’s dead, though to be honest I’d rather not have the book signed at all – it seems a bit disingenuous to sign work that you didn’t produce as though it was attributed to you.

  4. Ming, this is a very captivating post. I have not heard about Vivian before. I find it fascinating that she did not even develop a large portion of her film. She didn’t feel the need to show her photos to the world, because she didn’t appear to feel the need to see them herself. There had to be some other motivation that compelled her to go out and shoot. We can only speculate on what those reasons may have been. Thank you for posting this

  5. Thanks for the review, Ming. The fact that she didn’t wish to seek publicity or earn a good income from being a pro is what makes Vivian Maiers story special. It would appear that photography was a very private interest which she enjoyed immensely and I respect her for not selling out, whereas many pro photographers practice unashamed self publicism, despite not having half the talent Vivian had

    • In light of the discussion in the comments, I’m now questioning this – maybe she did, but she didn’t have the opportunity or didn’t know how. I suppose we’ll never find out.

  6. Jorge Ledesma says:

    Great review Ming, you’ve actually influenced my decision to buy it now, way to go Ming

  7. Per Kylberg says:

    The analysis of the Magnum/Life photography era cleary shows ignorance and arrogance. Sad to say but this really makes me angry. Ming – everything you do, and dream to do today in PP, at that time copyists did all of that in the darkroom. Like-wise photography itself required a lot more from the photographer than today.
    Compared to the prints from HCB, Strömholm and many others of the great, all you (and I) do looks just dead!
    The Maier book shows a strong sense for light and composition – the copies I guess are meda for the book.
    Not all make photos for others, many make them for themselves. For the joy of doing it, to see oneself develop into a better photographer. Who cares abouit what others think! I am one of them……

    • Per, I’m sorry but I disagree. There is far more you can do in today’s digital darkroom than you could have ever done with film, and with far more control and repeatability. Whether the photographer chooses to do that or not is a completely different matter; yes, most people don’t have the inclination or skills. But what you don’t know (and assume I am ignorant of) is that I did the same thing in the darkroom long before I was doing it in Photoshop. I did similar watch photography with complex math to calculate guide numbers with multiple flashes and diffusers on slide film with a Nikon F2. And I can use the same 100% manual equipment and film and produce very similar results to what I produce with digital. Remember every image you see on the web – or on this site – is a small, compressed, web-size jpeg not a print – not taking any of this into consideration only shows your own ignorance and arrogance. To produce good results you still need to understand the basics of photography! This portion of your comment – especially without any evidence, explanation or substantiation – shows a level of blasé rudeness and disrespect that I frankly find insulting and disappointing.

    • “Who cares abouit what others think! I am one of them……”

      Yet you cared enough to come on to someone’s blog and accuse the author of ignorance and arrogance because he shares a different opinion than yours and expressed it — and quite eloquently, I think most readers would agree.

      Geez Mr. Kylberg, hypocrite much?

  8. I own this book and made a donation to the group that was raising funds in order to get her body of published-chalked full of fabulous images!

  9. Ciao Ming, thanks for this post, another blogger posted some of her shots a few months ago, but am glad to hear about a book, which l must get! Also some thoughts….maybe her job as nanny did not afford her the confidence as a ‘professional’ photographer and the fact that as a woman and as such in a low paid job at that time in America before the rise of feminism kept this talented woman from seeking more in her life as a photographer?

    • Quite possible – I know that even today in Asian cultures, traditional families definitely do not view ‘photographer’ as a desirable occupation compared to ‘senior manager’ or something similar…

  10. I’m an idiot -her gallery was in my town last year and I never realised……utter fail!

  11. Thanks for this Ming, another great post. Think I’ll click through a pick up a copy. It sounds intriguing.

  12. compulady says:

    Good topic, I’m really happy to have found your blog, always something interesting! I have been following this story since I first heard about Vivian Maier and donated to the kickstarted project that got the project off and running. The topic brings up many ideas, foremost do all photographers want to be discovered, does everybody need or want the validation of being published?

    I would guess that of all people that enjoy photography most do as a hobby/art and less than 10% make much money from it. Many may prefer the art, craft, equipment and the joy of photography as well as the personal creativity involved in photography. I’m pretty sure a high percentage of DSLRs and photo equipment are being purchased by non professionals that often have more disposable income to spend on their interests then photographers struggling to make a living in the current economy.

    The other topic that is of interest to me is the fact that most of V.M.’s photographs were taken using a Twin Lens Reflex like the Rollieflex on the cover, using this camera requires one to look down into the camera rather than bringing the camera up to your face to point the lens directly at the eye level of the subject. This leads to a less confrontational stance and subjects that are less aware of one’s presence. FYI as you know can do a similar style of photography with the OMD and it’s tilt screen.

    • compulady says:

      Ooops auto correct changed kickstarter to kickstarted above.

    • Thanks! I’m pretty sure that Vivian had no desire whatsoever to be discovered – keeping her negatives undeveloped would signal that she either didn’t have the money or time, or just didn’t really care that much.

      If by make money, you mean profit after paying for gear – I think that number is much, much lower than 10%. And I would also venture that a lot of pros don’t really enjoy what they do, either – but they keep doing it because it pays the bills, or because it’s the only career they’ve ever known.

      Waist level shooting is definitely a lot less confrontational than aiming directly at a person; but I find that people mostly ignore me when I use a very small camera like the GRDIII or now, RX100. I suppose one of these with a tilt screen would be the ultimate in stealth.

  13. Great review, Ming. Enjoyed the book as much as you did. Wished I could have visited her exhibition earlier this year in Hamburg. What struck me the most is that she kept most of her films undeveloped. A photographer that enjoyed the act of photographing more than the final result.

    • Thanks Markus. Sadly we hardly get any good photography exhibitions in this part of the world – World Press Awards is about as good as it gets.

      I suppose that would be like shooting and never looking at your raw files?


  1. […] how on earth is anybody going to find it later? We can’t all get posthumous lucky breaks like Vivian Maier. A big box of negatives at auction implies a serious photographer because of the cost, time and […]

  2. […] And probably more frequently than we think, too – not all of them are shared with the world; Vivian Maier’s work is a great example of that. The single most important element of all isn’t covered in any of […]

  3. […] One of the more interesting, and popular, new photography books this year is a collection of street photographs from the 1950s and early ’60s, shot by (until very recently) unknown photographer Vivian Maier. She would have remained unknown, too, had a box of her negatives not been fortuitously purchased by local historian John Maloof. The circumstances of even this purchase were even more random: the contents of Maier’s storage locker were auctioned off by the company due to non-payment of account, raising all sorts of interesting issues over copyright and image ownership. Interestingly, the back of the book’s credits list ‘Photographs © Vivian Maier 2011′, even though the photographer herself died in 2009.  […]

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