Photo Review: Vivian Maier’s talent uncovered

Over 100,000 photographs, 40,000 negatives, 1000 rolls of undeveloped film and one mysterious woman. My first interaction with the work of the elusive Vivian Maier was one of admiration, which soon developed into unfounded awe.  Little is really known about Maier, although from her obituary she is known to have grown up in France, but spent the last 50 years of her life in Chicago. She spent much of her time working as a nanny in Chicago, but it seems most of her time was spent behind and in front of her camera.

Vivian Maier (1926-2009), settled in New York in 1951 and began taking photos a mere two years later. ‘By 1956 Vivian left the East Coast for Chicago’[1], where looking after children and documenting American urban life became her world. No relatives of hers were ever found and the only acquaintances she kept were those families she worked for. She was a woman who kept to herself and did not care to share much with the world she so admired.

April 7, 1960, Florida

Maier’s photo of the sleeping couple on the bus poses all kinds of questions. Who are the couple? Where are they going? What made Maier take a photo of this couple? However, after finding myself coming back to this photo again and again I found that none of the questions really mattered. It would be easy for me to compose a set of answers that one may be satisfied with, but at the end of the day I find the photo to be one of pure beauty, whether that was Maier’s intention or not. The couple are sleeping peacefully, nestled in their own little sanctuary beneath the man’s hat, blissfully unaware of the humdrum of city life that must have been going on around them.  The photo is also filled with lots of symmetry, lines and ‘couples’. Lines appear in the form of windows, the bars across the roof and the bar atop the seat, distancing the ‘audience’ from the old couple.  The pairs of people sat side by side in the background, and how the numbers ‘S32’ and ‘S31’ have been printed onto the seat in front of the couple. In this photo Maier captures a tender moment, which if not for her passion for photo taking, would have passed unnoticed.

I think that the mystery surrounding Maier is what gives her photographs such an air about them. They were left in a storage unit and auctioned off to pay for her care later in life, only to be salvaged by John Maloof.  As Aaron Sigmond notes in the online American Photo Mag, ‘her legacy very nearly died with her. Instead, thanks to Maloof, her story is gaining momentum’[2].

Although considered somewhat of a loner, Maier was able to interact and connect with the public on the streets in a magical way to produce a magnificent collection of photographs. Each and every one photograph is compelling and moving in its own way. She did not just shoot and shoot away in the hope of capturing some good shots, she obviously thought about a photo before taking it. I believe she had an amazing talent and eye for capturing beauty, and seeing as she never even developed many of her images to see how they came out, the fact that they are all striking just shows what a dishonour it would have been to her talent, had her collection never been discovered.

 ‘Joel Meyerowitz, the co-author of Bystander: A History of Street Photography and a renowned photographer in his own right, says of Maier’s images: “They are full of wit and surprise and playful spirit…Her basic decent humanism is evident everywhere in her photographs”.’[3]


She also had a talent for using ordinary things on the street to create outstanding photos. A particular favourite of mine is a self portrait of Maier that uses reflection in a very artistic way. She appears to have photographed herself in some kind of shop window. You can clearly see her taking the photo and hustling city behind her reflected in the window. However what I find most striking about it is how the two woman inside the shop are captured, one obliviously and the other caught in a thoughtful gaze, and perfectly framed within the outline of Maier herself. It would have been fascinating to have had a conversation with Maier herself, I wonder whether it was her intention to capture an image like that or was she entirely focused on the women through the window?

The fact that she had many hundreds and thousands of images that she never developed leads me to believe that it was the act of searching through the streets, interacting with people and observing them, and the act of taking the picture that was most important to Maier. The image that was created later was not her priority. However I believe the world of photography has been truly blessed that a great portion of Maier’s life work landed in the lap of someone so passionate and dedicated to sharing her work with the world. We have John Maloof to thank for all being able to take a piece of joy from Maier’s talent.

On the website dedicated to Maier’s work, Geoff Dyer remarks how ‘a good street photographer must possess many talents: an eye for detail, light, and composition; impeccable timing; a populist or humanitarian outlook; and a tireless ability to constantly shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot and never miss a moment . . . it is incredibly rare to find it in someone with no formal training and no network of peers’[4]. This is what puts Maier up there with the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand and Walker Evans. She had a raw talent that she mastered herself with no formal training. Maier, once an unknown and amateur photographer, is now being put in the hall of fame as one of the greats, and rightly so.

Photo 1: – under Travels

Photo 2:


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