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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