- Vivian Maier: A Photographer FoundOur PickBy John Maloof
- Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, 2nd EditionOur PickBy Richard Cahan and Michael Williams
- Vivian Maier: A Photographer's Life and AfterlifeOur PickBy Pamela Bannos
Important Art by Vivian Maier
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".
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.
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.