Vivian Maier spent more than forty years working city streets with camera in hand, creating images for her own pleasure we assume, since her work remained undiscovered until several years ago and was first exhibited in the United States this year. Only a tiny portion of the thousands of images she produced has been seen; it will take years to go through the negatives, prints and undeveloped rolls of film she left behind.
Although it is too early to determine how Maier’s work will be viewed in photographic history – will she be considered among great street photographers like Cartier-Bresson and others? The prints displayed at the Chicago Cultural Center reveal the excellence of her photographic eye and technical skills. Thus far, her images demonstrate that she mastered Cartier-Bresson’s concept of finding “the decisive moment” in photography, which he defined as “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which gave that event its proper expression.” (Women in Photography International, “Decisive Moments: A Tribute to Henri Cartier-Bresson” (2004). http://www.womeninphotography.org/decisivemoments/pr_info.html)
Magnum photographer and author Joel Meyerowitz said when he first saw her photos, “he first thought Maier’s photos had been shot by a man. ‘They’re earthy and gritty and tough…She was incredibly bold as a woman and vulnerable at the same time in a period when women weren’t necessarily thought of that way.’” (Associated Press, “Vivian Maier,” Daily Herald (March 14, 2011), http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20110313/news/703139924/)
Later, Meyerowitz said, “I’m not a forecaster of what will last, although I am moved enough to try to give her leverage of being taken seriously in a history book.” (Dozeema, Marie, “Vivian Maier: Amateur With a Sharp Eye,” Christian Science Monitor (April 12, 2011) http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Arts/2011/0412/Vivian-Maier-Amateur-with-a-Sharp-Eye)
Colin Westerbeck, with whom Meyerowitz wrote “Bystander: A History of Street Photography,” has a different opinion. “’I think that in historical perspective the photographs are not in and of themselves a revolutionary discovery…Part of the interest in it is a combination of the images and intensity with which she did this with the seemingly rather quiet and almost withdrawn life that she led.’”
I believe that Maier’s work demonstrates aesthetic excellence. Her attention to detail and careful composition must have been instinctive in order for her to make the photographs she did in urban settings. Her images show a breadth and depth of understanding, creativity and occasionally, humor. She explored social issues like homelessness and isolation, childhood and more in the thousands of photographs she left behind.