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)