American Street Photographer
New York City
Oak Park, Illinois
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.
- 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
Vivian Dorothy Maier was born in New York to a French mother, Maria Jaussaud Justin, and an Austrian father, Charles (Wilhelm) Maier. Her mother (like her grandmother) worked as a residential servant while her father was a steam engineer. Maier is known to have had one older brother, Karl, from whom she is thought to have been estranged throughout her life. One year before Vivian was born, Karl was placed briefly in the Heckscher Foundation Children's Home before being put in the care of his paternal grandparents. Karl had been removed from his parents' charge due to "constant conflict" and it is known that he suffered mental health issues and was imprisoned several times throughout his lifetime.
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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Vivian Maier
- 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
- Vivian Maier: Street PhotographerOur PickBy John Maloof
- Vivian Maier: The Color WorkOur PickBy Colin Westerbeck
- Vivian Maier: Self-PortraitsBy John Maloof
- Eye to Eye: Photographs by Vivian MaierBy Richard Cahan and Michael Williams
- Vivian Maier, The Secret PhotographerOur PickBy Leah Borromeo / British Journal of Photography / November 22, 2018
- Digging Deeper Into Vivian Maier's PastOur PickBy Kerri MacDonald / The New York Times / January 12, 2016
- The Life and Work of Street Photographer Vivian MaierOur PickBy Nora O'Donnell / Chicago Magazine / December 14, 2010
- Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult WomenOur PickBy Rose Lichter-Marck / The New Yorker / May 9, 2014
- Self-Portraits in a Complex Mirror: The Photographs of Vivian MaierBy Albert Mobilio / Hyperallergic / December 21, 2013
- Pieces of Vivian MaierBy Jillian Steinhauer / The Nation / November 6, 2017
- Finding Vivian Maier (Feature-length documentary)Our PickDirected by John Maloof and Charles Siskel
- Vivian MaierOur PickThe Art of Photography
- The Vivian Maier Lawsuit BeginsThe Art of Photography
- Vivian Maier: Lost and FoundThe Art of Photography
- Finding Vivian Maier (interview with Filmmaker Charles Siskel)Our PickTheLip.TV
- Discovering the Photography of Vivian MaierCBS