Posted in Art Criticism

Vivian Maier: Street Photographer: Conclusion

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in it is a combination of the images and intensity with which she did this with the seemingly rather quiet and almost withdrawn life that she led.’”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.

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Vivian Maier: Street Photographer Discovered Part 7: "Untitled: Aug. 22, 1956"

UNTITLED: AUG. 22, 1956
A steady noon sun, warm white sand and the rhythmic hum of waves are more than a tired man can resist. Maier finds him asleep on a beach, his hat a makeshift pillow squished under his head, his languid body slowly sinking into flowing sand. We smile at the incongruous nature of the scene – our subject is fully dressed, his pants pressed, plaid shirt buttoned at the cuffs, socks and dress shoes on his feet. He seems to have plopped onto the beach from nowhere, as there are remnants of only a few footprints leading to his resting spot.

Open space and repeated horizontal lines lend this photo a sense of tranquility. The man’s horizontal pose, the hairs on his head, the lines in his shirt, the water’s edge, the horizon line itself, wispy clouds in the sky (visible on the museum print) – even a row of pebbles forms a line extending to infinity left, infinity right. Maier’s lens again captures the tiniest details. Pant buttons, pocket tabs and creases. Wrinkles in his relaxed hand. The softest impressions in the sand.

Possibly, the man is as homeless as Maier’s throwaway man; perhaps this is the most peaceful place he can find to sleep – alone on an empty beach. We wonder if Maier came to this open space to find rest from the busy, congested streets as well. Either way, her photograph provides respite for our eyes.
(CONTINUED)

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Vivian Maier: Street Photographer Discovered Part 6: "Chicago, Il."

Chicago, Ill.

Thousands, even millions followed her steps years before and years into the future as well. A smartly dressed woman walks a familiar corridor framed by colossal pillars on her left and smooth columns alternating with shiny glass windows on her right. Contrasting horizontal lines of sidewalk, of venetian blinds at half-mast, of long shadows of columns, draw the woman in silent rhythm toward a lighted archway at the end.

In this photograph, Maier captures patterns and textures of daily living – the subject’s womanly curves accented by the flow of fabric, mid- to late-afternoon sun highlights the top of her hat, warming her slightly rounded shoulders and rippling along the gathers of her sashaying skirt as she walks.

Her path, like those who came before and those of us to follow leads to the gateway of light straight ahead. Silhouettes of three women turned inward toward one another can be seen at the end. Perhaps they are her goal – she is meeting them for an early supper. Or perhaps she is alone, always alone, their presence emphasizing her isolation.

Those familiar with Chicago might have a sense (as I did) of déjà vu – knowing that they have walked this woman’s path either in life or in a dream. I experienced that peculiar sensation, that nagging feeling of knowing a place as I viewed this photo at the Cultural Center. Later, walking back to the train station and turning a corner, there it was: the scene Maier captured more than a half-century before. The light nearly the same. The colossal pillars and mirror-like windows and horizontal shadows, the same. The feeling was a bit surreal, yet it was comforting to know that Maier had walked the same steps, taken a breath and made a photograph that was being appreciated so many years later.
(CONTINUED)

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Vivian Maier: Street Photographer Discovered Part 5: "Florida April 7, 1960"


Florida April 7, 1960

In companionship and comfort, an older couple sleeps on a Florida bus or streetcar, sheltered by the man’s white slightly tipped hat. Unaware of the people and conversations behind them, they sleep, resting in each other’s souls. They appear joined at the shoulder, she blending into him and he blending into her, decades of marriage creating their invisible bond. Repeated patterns – the roofline grid, the horizontal rows of windows, s32 S32 s31 S31 stenciled in white, people lined up two-by-two – repeat a steady rhythm of clacking tracks that lulls the couple into their public siesta.

Bright backlighting from the windows gives the background an ethereal feel; it makes the couple “pop” visually and brings the focus onto their relationship. The light softens the folds of the couple’s faces and gently washes across the top of the white hat. The photograph communicates peace in their camaraderie, celebrating a lifetime of enduring love.

Maier’s composition and use of contrast is exquisite in this photograph. She must have boarded the car or bus and immediately spotted the couple, then positioned herself to quickly make the photograph before they awoke. This moment seems a contrast to Maier’s intensely private, unmarried (as far as we know) life. Perhaps she longed to connect with someone in this intimate way, but her only way of reaching out was once again, through the mirror and glass of her camera.
(CONTINUED)

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Vivian Maier: Street Photographer Discovered Part 4: "Untitled (Canada)"

Untitled (Canada)

Maier’s photographs of children often reflect on the innocence of youth contrasted with the harsher realities of the streets. This theme is evident in a pair of young girls – sisters, perhaps – who stare into our souls, one with curiosity and the other girl with apprehension.

Maier’s flawless composition in “Untitled” (a majority of Maier’s works are untitled) frames the subjects naturally within the light and shadows of a shop doorway in Canada. Lighting and texture differences provide visual interest with the pattern of a white sign at the top left juxtaposed with the darker window on the right mirrored by dark wood at the bottom left contrasting with a white sign on the right. The pattern repeats in the girls as well: in the foreground, the elder girl’s milky complexion and light eyes contrast with her jumper’s dark, heavy fabric while behind her and to the left, the younger girl’s dark hair and skin contrast beautifully with her light-colored dress.

Reflections in the window bring our eyes from light to dark to light to dark, and then back to the girls’ haunting gazes.

Perhaps the girls played in the framework of their imaginations until suddenly interrupted by Maier and her Rolleiflex pointed in their direction. Maybe Maier broke traditional street photography rules, asking to take their photographs – and this was their response.

Like the Chicago girl with her string, the children are dirty and rather unkempt – quite different from the well-to-do children with whom Maier worked as a nanny throughout her adult life. As she wandered city streets during her free time, making photographs of day-to-day (and night-to-night) life, she might have identified more with her subjects than with the people in whose homes she lived.
(CONTINUED)

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Vivian Maier: Street Photographer Discovered Part 3: "Chicago, Ill., June 16, 1956"

Chicago, Ill., June 16, 1956

In “Chicago, Ill., June 16, 1956,” Maier presents a lonely theme once again, this time without despair. A young girl gazes slightly upward into our eyes, wondering whether we will accept, reject or simply ignore her as others do. Soft light illuminates tendrils of hair surrounding one side of her face, plays off the curve of her cheek, her belly and slightly developed breasts. She is unsure, a finger in her mouth pulling her lip into a pout. We interrupted her play – most likely cat’s cradle, given the string wrapped around her hands and extending behind her, a continuation of the horizontal lines in the stripes of her shirt. The stripes and string anchor her to a dark unknown at the right side of the photograph, giving the illusion that she may be tied in place.

Maier perfectly captures contrasting textures and the tiniest details in this photograph – rough-sawn, organic edges of the wood doorframe contrast with the smoother gray of cement steps at the bottom left and the roundness of her body. The twisted texture of the string, the silkiness of her hair, the holes in her too-small shirt beg for attention. She seems unkempt and uncared for, her uneven bangs far too short, her clothing far too small, the skin on her arms sporting far too much dirt. “Where are her parents?” Maier asks through the little girls’ eyes – and will we abandon her to the street as well?

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Vivian Maier: Street Photographer Discovered Part 2: "New York, NY 1953"

New York, NY 1953

Maier clearly and purposefully uses aesthetic elements in her work, capturing the souls of her subjects and at times calling attention to class differentiation and social injustice. In “New York, NY 1953,” she highlights contrasting textures of harsh substances and soft fabrics surrounding her subject, a crumpled heap of humanity. Contrasting horizontal and vertical lines create the framework in which he is centered, moving us to see tiny details that might take us from repugnance to compassion. The presence of a ring around his right middle finger suggests some sort of connection to “normal” life. His suit, his shoes may once have been fine; now they are as worn out as his scorned soul.

Maier knows that we will hurry past him as he sits in his lonely gutter. Her photograph gives us time to see him as a hurting human being mourning a lost life – and reminds us that we can easily be a step or two away from that gutter ourselves. Perhaps, too, Maier felt some sort of connection to the man’s pain and loneliness. “Don’t look at me!” he shouts with his body. Maybe her photographs were her way of interacting with the world while controlling its interaction with her: “Don’t look at me!” she shouts in silence, hiding behind her lens in the anonymity of the streets.
(CONTINUED)