Vivian Maier’s street scenes.

Vivian Maier was a nanny who took a lot of pictures, over 100,000 of them. A substantial amount of these, for which she is now becoming known, were taken on the streets of New York and Chicago from 1951 onwards, until ill health forced her to stop. Her work was never displayed in her lifetime, and it was only after her death in 2009 that her collection of negatives were found by a Chicago based Historian who began to develop them.


Her photographs have since been displayed all around the world, and been said to portray scenes reminiscent of Lisette Model, Helen Levitt, (and) Diane Arbus.’[1] What is present in Maier’s photographs is her ability to capture ‘fleeting moments’, snapshots of a time, of ‘the in-between, unexamined places’, where she experienced chance encounters with the rich, the poor, the young and the old, and ultimately a sense of the truth.[2] This truth comes as a result of her method: getting as close to her subjects as possible, while keeping them unaware of the camera that observes there life at that particular moment. She was able to do this in part because of her bold determination to do as she pleased, but was also greatly aided by her choice of camera.

February 27, 1963. Chicago, IL

February 27, 1963. Chicago, IL

Her ‘medium-format’ Rolleiflex camera gives these photographs ‘more detail than those of most street photographers’ due to its ‘2¼-by-2¼-inch twin-lens’, which open up more space vertically than its 35mm counterpart.[3] But the real benefit of such a camera is that it allows her to float about the streets almost invisibly. The camera itself is of a boxed shape with a large viewfinder on top rather than the back, allowing the photographer to look down and shoot rather than bringing it to eye level and alerting her subject(s), making it a ‘great disguise camera’ to see ‘how close you could come into somebody’s space and take a picture of them’, as we see perfectly in this shot.[4]

Undated, New York, NY

New York, NY

Taking the above picture as our first example, we get a full sense of Maier’s intentions and objectives when taking a shot. This photograph captures a sense of fluid movement; and it makes us a part of the subject’s life for the most transient of moments, all without alerting her to the cameras presence. Maier’s inclusion of what we presume to be a buses window frame adds depth, especially in conjunction with the opposing background, which bears over the subject emphasising her grandeur. But more precisely the window frame brings us the viewer into Maier’s seat, and therefore into the moment and movement. The blur of this frame gives us this sense of movement, providing a contrast to the well presented, silently still figure in the middle of the shot. She appears to be looking into the oncoming traffic, before stepping out into the road, all the while striking a confident, natural, and truthful pose. This confidence is seconded in her clothing and the framing Maier uses, placing her both in the centre of the frame, but also the space she inhabits. And finally with the contextual knowledge of Maier’s own life, being a strong promoter of women’s rights, we begin to see her interest in taking this shot, with the strong, calm independent woman stepping out into the oncoming traffic that only she can see.


Maier’s pictures as a result, begin to take on a documentative perspective in our minds. Her interest in the current state of America is seen clearly, especially in this next photograph. The two children provide immediately a sense of innocence, firstly in being children, but also in Maier’s camera being level with them, equalling them with the viewer. However there is a striking sense of humanity at this moment in time, with the black child kneeling in front of, and looking up to the white child who does not engage him, and rather turns to the camera as if to justify the situation or question the viewer. We in turn are taking part in this experience, understanding the black boys plight, and the white boy failing to recognise it.

1954 New York, NY (shoe shine)

Their placement at the front of the image however signifies their importance, and this suggests Maier is telling us that these two are whom we need to focus on: not just in the picture but also in society. To enhance this she includes in the background the lurking figure of the adult, lost to his foolish ways and posed in the same nonchalant way as his junior counterpart, suggesting a connection between the two, or at least a possible one, a future one. So through this seemingly simple shot Maier presents the race relations of 1954 (the year the African-American Civil Rights Movement began), giving a commentary on the passing of time with regards to developing attitudes on race. So here like with Lewis Hine, Maier is taking photographs that become ‘a piece of evidence’, a piece of history, that says ‘that a given thing happened’, and it is the truth.[5] [6]

Her social inspection of American culture however is not pigeonholed to one corner of society, or one sentiment. She seems to have a ‘sense of humour and a sense of tragedy’, as seen in these two shots. The photograph of the man on the left, is a good example of her ability to gain access to someone’s private space, but does not suggest anything of society, and rather is an example of what Joel Meyerowitz calls her ‘sweet and innocent embrace of human beings’, seen in the simple unadulterated cheeriness of a man she does not know.[7] The second shot, while clearly showing an ‘abject poverty in the frame’ also portrays a ‘happiness in spite of it all’. Maier’s lens is able to show this through her once again bringing the lens down to the subjects level, and with it the viewer engenders a feeling of sympathy towards a man obviously down on his luck, but more importantly, someone we do not know.[8]

Undated, Chicago, IL

Chicago, IL


September 24, 1959, New York, NY

September 24, 1959, New York, NY

However despite her best efforts Maier’s lens did not always escape the subject’s eye. Yet still in spite of this she continued to document, and in these two photographs we are alerted to the gaze, not only the gaze towards Maier herself, but to us the viewer whom she has placed there in that street. She manages to both make subject, and viewer vulnerable, positioning the latter within a possible confrontation. This she achieves once again by directing the camera up, giving the subjects a ‘power and dignity’ over us. But what we see most of all is the power of the lens, the ability for a person’s attitude and feelings to shift instantaneously the moment they realise they are about to be captured.

January 26, 1955, New York, NY

January 26, 1955, New York, NY

1961. Chicago, IL

1961. Chicago, IL

So what do we gain from Maier’s photographs? They speak to a need to capture the ever-moving present, and ‘to record what is disappearing’.[9] It’s her invasion of a person’s private space that allows us to see a clarity and truth in the passing of time. In getting as close as she does, we the viewer are given insight to their lives on a much more personal level, but also a level with which we are able to feel a sympathy and a camaraderie, the joyfulness and beauty of fleeting moments and the all-embracing ‘incongruity of life’.[10]


[1] Geoff Dyer, ‘Foreword’, in ‘Vivian Maier: Street Photographer’, ed. by John Maloof (New York, 2011), p. 8

[2] Rose Lichter-Marck, ‘Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women’, The New Yorker, May 9th 2014, accessed via (12/01/16)

[3] William Meyers, ‘The Nanny’s Secret’, The Wall Street Journal, January 3rd 2013, accessed via (12/01/16)

[4] Finding Vivian Maier, (2013), Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. USA, Ravine Pictures. [Documentary]

[5] ‘Classic Essays on Photography’, ed. by Alan Trachtenberg, (Connecticut, 1980), p.109

[6] Susan Sontag, ‘On Photography’, (New York, 1977), p. 5

[7] Joel Meyerowitz, in Sharon Cohen, ‘Celebrating Vivian Maier’s Genius: Undiscovered Chicago Photographer Finally Acknowledged’, May 25th 2011, accessed via (10/01/16)

[8] Finding Vivian Maier, (2013), Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. USA, Ravine Pictures. [Documentary]

[9] Sontag, p. 16

[10] Finding Vivian Maier, (2013), Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. USA, Ravine Pictures. [Documentary]


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