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Vivian Maier Photo

Vivian Maier

American Street Photographer

Born: February 1, 1926 - New York City
Died: April 21, 2009 - Oak Park, Illinois
"I'm a sort of spy."
1 of 11
Vivian Maier Signature
"Well, I suppose nothing is meant to last forever. We have to make room for other people. It's a wheel. You get on, you have to go to the end, and somebody has the same opportunity to go to the end, and so on. And somebody else takes their place."
2 of 11
Vivian Maier Signature
"As secretive as Vivian Maier was in life, in death her mystery has only deepened. Without the creator to reveal her motives and her craft, we are left to piece together the life and intent of an artist based on scraps of evidence, with no way to gain definitive answers."
3 of 11
John Maloof (collector)
"Elderly folk congregating in Chicago's Old Polish Downtown, garishly dressed dowagers, and the urban African-American experience were all fair game for Maier's lens."
4 of 11
John Maloof (collector)
"She didn't try to become famous, she didn't create images for others and she didn't see things that she knew others would appreciate. She saw the world in a personal, uninfluenced way, and her photos are a raw depiction of that world she saw. The photos are beautiful and important because, not only are they great images, they are not contrived."
5 of 11
John Maloof (collector)
"She was a kind of mysterious figure. What's compelling about her pictures is the way that they capture the local character of Chicago in the past decades."
6 of 11
Colin Westerbeck (former curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago)
"She was very lonely, She was almost invisible while taking these photos, even though she always wore big hats and shoes. She was a presence, yet no one noticed her."
7 of 11
Elizabeth Weinstein (curator)
"She always considered herself an outsider, and because of this, she was able to be the observer."
8 of 11
Elizabeth Weinstein (curator)
"I think she's one of the top street photographers, ever. She has a key place in the history of the medium - right next to Robert Frank and all the other great practitioners. Her images contain all the specificity of street photography while also referencing the history of visual culture."
9 of 11
Anne Morin (curator)
"She was much more interested in the process of taking photographs than in producing a physical image, a print. In many, many cases, after taking a photograph, the film would be set aside, undeveloped. She was obsessed with recording the world but didn't necessarily need to see these recordings afterward."
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Anne Morin (curator)
"One persistent tendency was her desire to take pictures of people on the periphery."
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Anne Morin (curator)

Summary of Vivian Maier

Unknown in her own lifetime, Maier left behind a body of work that has seen her name take on near fabled status. A "difficult" woman with few (if any) close friends or lovers, she is often referred to as the Mary Poppins of Street Photography on account of the fact that she spent most of her career working as a nanny. In her down time, however, Maier would explore urban locations where she found her subjects: the ordinary people living at the margins of society. Her earlier years remained faithful to a monochromatic documentary style but, she later adopted color which widened the scope of her oeuvre to allow for an element of symbolism. She also produced a number of self-portraits (black-and-white and color) which have given the world a picture of an otherwise unknown, intensely private figure. The publication and exhibition of her work, very little of which was processed or printed in her own lifetime, has led to legal, academic and ethical questions about the posthumous exposure of an artistic vision that has seen her hold her own alongside the likes of Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand.

Accomplishments

  • Maier has been likened to the top Street Photographers in the way her work explores the relationship between the image taker and their urban subject. It is known, however, that Maier took special pride in her working-class roots and, as someone who earned her keep as a domestic help, she shared a special empathy with many of her subjects. This bond is revealed time and again in the faces of those honorable subjects who filled her sympathetic viewfinder.
  • Maier was unique amongst Street Photographers in the way she was able to interact with children, be they posing for portraits or caught in spontaneous moments of play. Her affinity with a child's worldview (most of her photographs of children are shot from the eye-level of the child) no doubt stemmed from her affection for children which was fostered in her "day job" (as a nanny).
  • Known primarily for her street portraits, Maier proved highly adaptable and she possessed a rare ability to pick out patterns between human figures and their architectural surroundings. It would be too easy to dismiss her as an accomplished amateur given her ability to identify compositional possibilities using light and shadow, surface reflections and considered points of view. Indeed, her archive demonstrates that Maier was a learned and adept urban photographer even though she received no formal training.
  • In her later years, Maier turned exclusively to color photography, and having done so, some commentators have suggested she unwittingly predicted the shift in attitude that allowed color photography to be considered artistically credible. On a personal level, the move away from her monochromatic phase saw Maier replace the human figure with color as the "protagonist" in her images. For this reason, her mature works allow for more abstract formal elements to dominate her frame.
  • Maier was discovered after a vast cache of her unprinted works was acquired by third parties through auction. Given that she has had no say in how her images have been selected or represented in public, the posthumous exhibition and publication of her work raises complex questions about the ethics of artistic reputation building. Indeed, Maier's legend has been built in her absence by curators who have profited financially (and lawfully) from an artist who showed little or no will to sell or exhibit her work, and who died in poverty.

Biography of Vivian Maier

Detail from <i>Self-Portrait</i> (1953)

Undiscovered until after her death, French-American nanny Vivian Maier’s vast output of urban documentary photographs offer an honest glimpse of the world as seen through the eyes of a woman who was at once reclusive, private, and eccentric, yet also curious, caring, and cheeky.

Important Art by Vivian Maier

Progression of Art
Untitled (Self-Portrait) (1953)
1953

Untitled (Self-Portrait)

A significant number of Maier's photographs were self-portraits, though one could hardly accuse her of ever being self-indulgent or narcissistic. With her short haircut and functional style of clothing, she often appears as an anonymous, almost androgynous, presence in reflected objects such as windows, mirrors, or hubcaps, or sometimes just in shadow. Since she never printed or published these images it is impossible to say if she attributed any aesthetic value or importance to her self-portraits; it is possible, for instance, that they were no more than the mark of a compulsive photographer aimlessly experimenting with her camera. Indeed, the art critic Jillian Steinhauer has made the point that "in many cases, Maier didn't even see her own pictures beyond framing them in her viewfinder. Who's to say she would have wanted the whole world looking at them?". This does not alter the fact, however, that her photography has been taken up posthumously as the mark of a true artist and therefore worthy of considered analysis.

Critic Alberto Mobilio argues, for instance, that Maier's propensity for taking self-portraits "confirms without a doubt her own vigorous consciousness of herself as an artist" at the same time as it "testifies to her acute awareness of self-portraiture's long tradition, and particularly its more inventive [...] Permutations". Curator and photography writer Elizabeth Avedon added, "The strength of Maier's character is found in the persona looking back at us. There is little compromise; and ironically for such a private, autonomous person, her self-portraits are some of her strongest work". Reading from a gendered perspective, meanwhile, photographer Mary Thomas views Maier's self-portraits as "historically important" in that they demonstrate "a rejection of gendered expectations" and shed light "on the invisibility of the unmarried, childless woman and child care worker" and that, finally, her self-portraits "question the very ideals Americans cherished at that point in time".

Photograph - Maloof collection

1955

Untitled (May 5,1955, New York City)

Artist and photography critic Allan Sekula notes, Maier "showed the world of women and children in a way that is pretty much unprecedented". A notable characteristic of Maier's photographs is her ability to enter into the psychological space of children, whether they are posing for a portrait at a close distance, or being captured in moments of play in the city streets. In this way, Maier's work bears a strong resemblance to that of Helen Levitt, who is known for her documentary photographs of community street life, particularly of children playing in their neighborhoods.

While many of Maier's photographs of adults indicate no awareness of her presence on the part of her subjects (or if they do register her presence, it is usually with a look of distrust or disdain), her photographs of children frequently involve direct eye contact and expressions of acceptance, bordering on curiosity, on the faces of the young subjects. Here, Maier has captured a fleeting, yet intimate, moment of connection, photographing a boy who is so interested in her presence that he presses his nose against the glass to peer at her more intensely. Moreover, much of Maier's oeuvre seems to indicate the ongoing perspective of the child's point of view, with her photographs of children being shot frontally, at their eye level, and with many of her photograph of adults being shot from below, as if from a child's vantage point.

Photograph - Maloof collection

1959

Untitled (Sept 24, 1959, New York City)

Much like Diane Arbus, Maier took a great many photographs of marginalized people, including racial minorities and the socially deprived. In this image, Maier brings us close to an unknown male, whose unkempt and disheveled appearance signify that he is impoverished; either a manual laborer or a homeless man. Collector John Maloof argues that Maier's apparent "affinity for the poor" is likely due to "an emotional kinship she felt with those struggling to get by". One of Maier's former employers, Karen Usiskin, notes, meanwhile, that "she had a real identity with being a poor person. That was something that she was proud of".

Photographer Mary Ellen Mark has compared Maier's work to that of Swiss-American street photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank in that both foregrounded in their work a sense of alienation and hardship in America. In this way, her work is also reminiscent of that of Richard Avedon, particularly his gritty, high-contrast, close-up photographs of working-class and otherwise downtrodden Americans (as seen in his series In the American West (1985)).

Like Arbus, Frank, and Avedon, Maier tested the space between the photographer and her or his subject. Photographer Anna Fox suggests that "As a woman you have a privileged position. Women develop relationships with people they are photographing, and are less threatening with a medium format camera. There's a subtle irony and gentleness that is a particular female gaze". Curiously, it is in her portraits that we see Maier's subjects offering a glimpse of their inner emotional states and vulnerability, whereas the more affluent individuals she photographed seem, by comparison, guarded and emotionally opaque. As curator Anne Morin observed, "Occasionally [Maier] would make portraits of rich people. But these photographs feel very different. There's something very aggressive about these pictures. She is very close to them and right in their face [but it's] like she's stealing something from them". The man in this photograph does not appear to view Maier with suspicion or contempt, but offers rather a softened expression of acceptance mixed, albeit, with palpable sense of curiosity.

Photograph - Maloof collection

1960

Untitled (7 April, 1960, Florida)

Even though Maier struggled to make or maintain close personal relationships, many of her photographs indicate an interest in tender moments between others. Street photographer Joel Meyerowitz has said that Maier's work was "suffused with the kind of human understanding, warmth and playfulness that proves she was 'a real shooter'", and that she was alert to "moments of generosity and sweetness".

In this photograph Maier has captured just such a moment of sweet tenderness, with the elderly couple seated on the trolley, dozing off while resting their heads against one another. The simple composition focuses the eye on this tender moment, with the trolley's windows and roof rails leading to a vanishing point directly behind the couple's heads. Arts editor Nora O'Donnell has observed that many of Maier's most poignant photographs are casual shots of passers-by caught in transient moments "that nonetheless possess an underlying gravity and emotion". Art critic Roberta Smith added that Maier's photographs "maintain a distinctive element of calm, a clarity of composition and a gentleness characterized by a lack of sudden movement or extreme emotion".

Photograph - Maloof collection

1961

Untitled (June 25, 1961)

Collector John Maloof notes that from an early age Maier "developed an uncanny ability to recognize patterns, to arrange and compose space, and eloquently distribute light and gesture within the frame". Her playful and experimental approach to composition is highly reminiscent of the work of Hungarian-American photographer Andre Kertesz, who also focused on the formal possibilities afforded by light, shadow, reflection, and unconventional vantage points.

While much of Maier's work focused on portraiture, a number of her images were either devoid of human subjects, or made human subjects secondary to the patterns and forms created by urban architecture and found objects. In this photograph, for instance, a group of sailors are shown in Chicago's Union Station. Strong shadows and beams of light dominate the frame as architectural elements preplace the sailors as the image's protagonists. Indeed, Maloof first encountered, and became somewhat awe-struck, by Maier's work when he was searching for source material for a book on historical Chicago architecture. He notes that Maier's body of work demonstrates an innate talent for composition and framing, and that many of the negatives he found in her belongings required little to no cropping during processing.

Photograph - Maloof collection

1971

Untitled (April 19, 1971, Chicago)

Photographer Mary Ellen Mark compares Maier's photography to that of Austrian-American photographer Lisette Model. In particular, both Maier and Model demonstrate a powerful sense of humor, and striking resemblances can be found in many of their images, specifically those of people with interesting body shapes, and of grotesquely made-up upper class women. Arts writers Richard Cahan and Michael Williams assert that "Like other street photographers, [Maier] was on the prowl for metaphor, outrageous juxtaposition, and humor", and she is said to have had "a taste for the grotesque, the bizarre, the incongruous".

In this image, a humorous and jarring juxtaposition is established between the two male figures, one of whom nearly fills the frame with an obese body shape that threatens to burst out of its clothing, and the other, more slender man squeezed off to the side of the frame. This odd scene is amplified by the less-than-pleased, impertinent sideways stare that the unwitting subjects shoot back at the photographer.

Cahan and Williams also note that, like other street photographers, Maier "could make herself invisible [...] But by making eye contact, Maier broke a common rule of documentary work. Some suppose that Maier's choice of equipment may have helped make these pictures possible because she could peer down into the viewfinder of her waist-high camera instead of making eye contact. [But on] almost every roll of film, Maier produced at least one eye-to-eye photo [...] It is the one constant of her work".

Photograph - Maloof collection

1975

Untitled (August 1975, Chicago)

Around the mid-1970s, Maier stopped using her Rolleiflex camera altogether, and turned exclusively to color photography using Ektachrome film. Some critics have recognized a strong similarly between Maier's color photography, and that of German-Canadian street photographer Fred Herzog. Both Maier and Herzog made color the protagonist of their images, creating striking compositions from simple scenes such as groupings of interestingly-colored cars, or bold color choices in the clothing of quirky pedestrians.

Photographer Joel Meyerowitz calls Maier "an early poet of color photography," and curator Anne Morin notes that Maier's color photographs "focus on the musicality of the image, the forms, the density of the colors. She was really working in the medium of color when she took color photographs [...] I think the color work announces the end of her life. She's about to finish making photographs and about to disappear from the world. As her identity is fading, we can feel that fading through the growing abstraction in her images".

Indeed, in this image it is apparent that Maier approached the medium of color photography quite thoughtfully, by selecting scenes and subjects for images in which color (yellow in this example) plays a primary, rather than secondary role. For instance, it is likely that Maier would not have even shot this scene if she had been armed with a black-and-white camera at the time, as the noteworthy and comical aspect of the image derives from the very fact that the three figures all dressed themselves in the same vibrant, one might say, tawdry, shade of yellow.

Photograph - Maloof collection

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Vivian Maier
Influenced by Artist
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Vivian Maier Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 04 May 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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