This picture makes me smile – it looks like the cab is keeping pace with the man during a lunchtime walk. Or maybe the man is walking with the cab. Either way, I walked the streets and “shot from the hip.” It’s fun seeing what appears within the confines of my lens! (For the curious: This photo was shot on State Street in Chicago – note the old Marshall Field’s clock in the background. For the record, I don’t care who owns it or what it’s called…it will always be Marshall Field’s to me!)
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.
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.
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?
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.
Street Photographer Discovered
He curls into a pretzel-like sphere, gangly limbs entangled as he turns inside and away from us, away from the world and into that private space that remains his only safety from the streets. He remains faceless – perhaps fearful, perhaps ashamed in the threadbare filth of a torn suit, a worn cap, battered shoes and a life that has taken him to this cold, anonymous space that could be any city’s sidewalk. Varying textures – concrete, ceramic tile, cold white marble and polished steel – frame his tattered soul, all pointing to the throwaway man surrounded by cigarette butts and city dirt.
“New York, NY 1953” is among a number of striking images made by recently discovered street photographer Vivian Meier and shown at the Chicago Cultural Center from January through April this year. Maier was unknown to the regional and world art and photography community until 2008, when Chicago resident John Maloof purchased a box containing thousands of anonymous photographs and negatives at an auction for $400, hoping to find something to use in a history book he was co-authoring. (John Maloof, “Vivian Meier – Her Discovered Work,” http://vivianmeier.blogspot.com)
He scanned some of the images and posted them on Flickr.com, a web-based photo sharing site, labeling the Oct. 9, 2009, discussion, “What do I do with this stuff (other than giving it to you)?” (John Maloof, http://www.flickr.com/groups/onthestreet/discuss/72157622552378986/)
The images generated a long and lively online discussion, indicating the photographs were certainly of interest. At the time, Maloof wrote that he “didn’t know what ‘street photography’ was” when he purchased them.(Op. cit., “Vivian Maier – Her Discovered Work.”)
Maloof identified Maier as the photographer several months later after finding her name scribbled on a piece of paper amongst the photographs. He set out to find out more about her and discovered she died only months after he acquired her photographs. “What is known about … Maier is that she was born in New York in 1926, lived in France (her mother was French) and returned to New York in 1951. Five years later, she moved to Chicago, where she worked for about 40 years as a nanny, principally for families in the North Shore suburbs. On her days off, she wandered the streets of New York and Chicago, most often with a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera. Apparently, she did not share her pictures with others. Many of them, she never even saw herself, as she left behind hundreds of undeveloped rolls.” (Dunlap, David, “New Street Photography, 60 Years Old,” New York Times Lens, Jan. 7, 2011, http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/07/new-street-photography-60-years-old/)
Maloof followed up a suggestion to take some of Maier’s negatives to a museum, specifically to the Chicago Cultural Center, where they were accepted for this year’s showing.
Lanny Silverman, chief curator at the Chicago Cultural Center, said in the Chicago Sun-Times, “There weren’t many women doing street photography in the ‘50s and ‘60s…so this is very interesting and noteworthy. Beyond just the story of her life, I think she’s quite a photographer.” (Houlihan, Mary, “A Developing Picture: The Story of Vivian Maier,” Chicago Sun-Times, April 19, 2011, http://www.suntimes.com/entertainment/2973223-421/maier-maloof-vivian-street-negatives.html.)
During this same time, Jeff Goldstein, another art collector (who also knows Maloof) acquired around 12,000 of Meier’s negatives and images. Images from Goldstein’s collection are currently showing at the Russell Bowman Gallery in Chicago until June 18. “Goldstein says that Maloof brought Maier’s work to the public first and that he was aware of her work when he acquired his portion of her work.” (Robinson, Kevin, “Behind the Images: Jeff Goldstein Talks About Vivian Maier,” Chicagoist, Jan. 6, 2011, http://chicagoist.com/2011/01/06/a_little_over_a_year.php#photo-1)
Additional exhibitions of Maier’s photographs are scheduled in London, New York, Los Angeles and Germany.
Street photography has a relatively broad definition by its nature. In simplest terms, street photography encompasses any unstaged photograph made in a public place. People may or may not be present, although some critics and photographers believe people must be present in the photograph in order for it to be defined as “street photography.” (Nitsa, “What is Street Photography?”, No Rules. [Street] Photography., http://www.nonphotography.com/streetphotography.html)
Nick Turpin writes that street photography “is not reportage, it is not a series of images displaying, together, the different facets of a subject or issue…(it) is about seeing and reacting, almost bypassing thought altogether.”(Turpin, Nick, “What is Street Photography?” In-Public, http://www.in-public.com/information/what_is, 2000)
Street photography is most often judged by its aesthetic value. Classic street photography includes “a lot of the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, Gary Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. Cartier-Bresson and Winogrand often photograph people who are identifiable, in locatable places. (The subjects) are not arranged by the photographer except with their viewfinders.”(Barrett, Terry, “Criticizing Photographs: an Introduction to Understanding Images,” Fourth Edition, McGraw-Hill, 2006, p. 100.)
Street photographers look beyond the scene in their lenses, observing and capturing artistic elements such as pattern, symmetry, texture, depth of field and line in their photographs. “There are patterns all around us,” writes Darren Rowse in “Five Elements of Composition in Photography.” Emphasizing and highlighting patterns – or breaks in patterns – “can lead to striking shots,” he continues, and that texture “particularly comes into play when light hits objects at interesting angles.” Lines “can be powerful elements in an image. They have the power to draw the eye to key focal points in a shot and to impact the ‘feel’ of an image greatly.” (Rowse, Darren, “Five Elements of Composition in Photography,” 2000, http://www.digital-photography-school.com/5-elements-of-composition-in-photography)