A review of a Vivian Maier photograph

(Vivian Maier, undated, New York City, NY)[1]

(Vivian Maier, undated, New York, NY)

This photograph was taken by the amateur photographer Vivian Maier in New York City in the 1950s. Vivian Maier is a recently discovered photographer whose work has caused a major revival of street photography. Vivian Maier was of French and Austro-Hungarian parentage, yet she was born in America. Maier lived in Europe, mainly in France, up until 1951 when she returned to the United States. For the majority of her working life Maier worked as a children’s nanny in New York and Chicago, taking photographs was her hobby and also a form of documentation of her life and American history. This can be seen in the photographs she took of others, objects and her portraits of herself. Susan Sontag articulates that the photograph can be used as a medium through which to regard the pain of others[2], in this case it is the feelings of Vivian Maier which are shown by the beauty captured through the lens of her camera. Maier was described as “eccentric, strong, heavily opinionated, highly intellectual, and intensely private”[3] and it is evident that her photographs were her way of expressing herself, although she would never show them to anyone, and many remained undeveloped until they were discovered in a storage space in 2007.

The subject of this photograph is clearly the child depicted at the centre. The child appears to be a young girl of around five years of age. She is stood on the street; this can be explained by the obvious shop window background. The little girl appears to be dirty on both her bare skin and her clothing. This would imply poverty, as the black and white of the photograph accentuates and is reminiscent of Walker Evan’s poverty photographs in which the faces of children appear grubby with dirt. A further point to this is the clothing of the child. The clothing seems to be on the rather small, suggesting that it has been outgrown. In addition, the clothing is unisex. This could be due to the fact that it has been handed down to the child in the photograph from another, something which would advance the argument that the chid comes from the working class. There is also a suggestion that the outfit worn by the girl is one that she regularly wears, implying that she does not have many clothes from which to choose. This implication comes from the tan lines on the child’s arms where the t-shirt sleeves come to an end. It has been noted that Vivian Maier’s photographs tend to portray an affinity to the poor[4] which could have been due to the fact that she felt that she knew what it was like to struggle and therefore felt some emotional attachment to the subjects of her photographs.

However, in spite of her apparent dishevelled state, the girl in the photograph portrays a look of defiance which would back up the view that Maier felt some connection to the poor and in a way her photographs were a way of standing up for the poor. This is evident from the child’s stance. Her arms are folded across her chest in a defensive position and she is staring indignantly at the camera, despite the tears that can be seen in her eyes. There is a sense of anger in her gaze, perpetuated by the way in which her jaw is set, rather than giving in to the urge to sob. This reflects a certain degree of hardship and reluctance in the child’s life. On the other hand, the girl is the picture is aesthetically beautiful. She has round facial features, particularly her wide eyes and her face is almost perfectly symmetrical. This is a direct contrast to the rest of her appearance and therefore emphasises that beauty can be found anywhere, even on the poor streets of New York City. This is what Vivian Maier found in this snapshot, enjoying the freedom only this type of photography could provide. The snapshot allows a moment to be captured without being absorbed by the needs of those insistent on turning all photography into art.[5]

I am of the opinion that the fact that this photograph was taken in black and white brings out its every feature. It has been argued by Robert Frank that “Black and white is the vision of hope and despair.”[6] I think that this is particularly true in the case of this photograph. The black and white product highlights the grubbiness of the child and her clothing and increases the harshness of the photograph which gets across the theme of poverty once more by bringing to life the unseen destitution of the streets of America. This view is backed up by Bill Brandt, who stated that “Darkness can reflect darkness of life.” I believe that this statement is true of the photograph by Vivian Maier as it puts the emphasis on poverty.

The use of black and white also indicates Maier’s place in the world of serious photography. For the more serious photographers of the time the colours of Kodak were not the colours of the world.[7] Prominent figures such as Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Lisette Model all produced the majority of their work in black and white, particularly in the 1950s. It is thought that Lisette Model could have been of significant influence in the photography of Vivian Maier. She is renowned for her blunt, confrontational pictures that brought her success during her time working for Harper’s Bazaar magazine.[8] The blunt and confrontational nature of her photography can certainly be seen in Maier’s photograph of this child on the street. It can be seen through the direct way in which the photograph is taken; the child is staring straight into the camera face on. She is also at the centre of the photograph and occupies the majority of the frame. It is thought that Maier was profoundly influenced by Model’s style of photography, with some images showing remarkable similarities as can be seen by the four photographs below. It was also around the time that Model began to teach in New York City at the New School for Social Research that Maier’s work took a dramatic turn as she began to use a Rolleiflex camera rather than the Kodak Brownie camera she had used previously.[9] This move highlights Maier’s move into the world of serious photography.

comparison of Vivian Maier and Lisette Model[10]

Vivian Maier was clearly a very important and now influential photographer. The discovery of her work and its consequential development and exhibition by John Maloof has caused a renaissance in the world of street photography. Maier’s work took a dramatic turn in the 1950s when she began to use a better quality of camera. She shot mainly in black and white on the streets of American cities in this period. It can be seen that her photography highlights the changes and hardship being experienced in American society. This connects to Maier’s own life which was not always easy; she had empathy for the poor and this was reflected in her photographs. The photograph at the centre of this review is a perfect example of both snapshot photography and a reflection of Vivian Maier’s own life that she chose to express through the medium of photography. Vivian Maier’s black and white photograph of the little girl in front of a shop window shows the photographer’s talent for capturing a snapshot, yet avoiding what Karl Teige describes as “The sad, anaemic, touristy weekend snapshots, born ten-thousand fold each week.”[11] This shows that Vivian Maier’s “hobby” was in fact much more, she was a serious photographer who produced a remarkable field of work.

[2] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (Penguin Books, 2003) p. 11

[3] Vivian Maier, available at http://www.vivianmaier.com/research/vivian-maier/, accessed 23/01/12

[4] Vivian Maier, available at http://www.vivianmaier.com/research/vivian-maier/, accessed 23/01/12

[5] Robert Doty (eds.), Photography in America(Ridge Press Thames and Hudson, London, 1974) p. 8

[6] Robert Frank, Moving Out (Scalo Zurich – Berlin – NY, 1994) p. 54

[7] Peter Turner, American Images: Photography 1945 – 1980 (Penguin Books, 1985) p. 21

[8] Turner, p. 75

[9] Vivian Maier, available at http://www.vivianmaier.com/research/photography/, accessed 22/01/12

[10] Vivian Maier, available at http://www.vivianmaier.com/research/photography/, accessed 23/01/12

[11] Karel Teige (class reading)


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