Look. This graceful woman in a stylish black dress is walking across a city street. Her foot is about to step on a trolley rail. She is looking slightly to her left. Or maybe not.
She is far away. The image of her is blurred. There is so much of her that is not known, so much hard to read. Yet, I find her compelling. I’m not sure why.
This image is blurred because it is part of the background of a photo of a window-washer that is included in the 2011 book Vivian Maier: Street Photographer.
For the moment, Maier’s story has overwhelmed an evaluation of her art.
During the course of a half a century, she took 100,000 photographic negatives, mostly on city streets, but did virtually nothing to find an audience for them. She died. John Maloof, a Chicago writer researching a neighborhood history, discovered one box of her negatives and then more, printed some and then many, and then Vivian Maier, who had lived her life in obscurity, was the talk of the art world.
Turning the pages of Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, I felt myself pushing away from the ostensible subject, such as the window-washer. Not exactly repelled (at least, in most cases). Instead, there was a sense of unknowableness to the faces. A sense that, no matter how clear Maier’s focus was, there was no way to get beneath the skin to the person there.
But maybe what was happening was that her biography was getting in the way. She was, it appears, such a mystery herself.
In any case, I ended up looking to the edges — looking at what else was in the frame and being fascinated by what I found.
My photographer friends will probably scold me for this, but I began to see these pieces of Maier’s images as separate images with a life of their own. Like the woman crossing the street or this image (right) of a woman coming up basement stairs that was the right hand edge of one of Maier’s self-portraits, the one taken in a mirror held up by a guy loading a truck.
In some photographs, it seems pretty clear that Maier was working to achieve this image within an image. One example is this image of a building which takes up much of the top part of her picture of a man sleeping in a car. It is perfectly framed in the car window.
Perhaps also this one of people at a party in the lower right of a shot of an African-American couple, one of whom is holding the strings of three balloons.
At other times, I’m not sure if Maier planned her edges as well as she planned her central image. My photographer friends might be able to tell me how routine or unusual that is.
The woman crossing the street and the woman coming up the basement stairs are examples of people entering or leaving the background of a Maier photograph. Did she wait for them to get to where they were in the background? Or is this just the result of photographing in a city?
Consider these two images — the one on the left from the background of a photo of an African-American man riding a horse under el tracks, and the one on the right from the upper right corner of a photograph of a burned chair, also under el tracks.
Or this one from the upper right corner of a portrait of a boy with two baseball mitts and a model airplane.
Where are these people heading? Where is anyone heading? If Maier’s subjects are unknowable, these people are even more so.
Is this what she wanted to convey?
Also on the edges are architectural elements or glimpses of the streetscape in which no people can be seen.
Here are two — one of the left from the upper right corner of a shot of a father cleaning the bottom of his son’s shoe, and the one on the right from the left hand border of a photo of a cop talking with an older woman, holding her hands, as if to calm her down.
Of course, any photograph in a city is likely to include images like this. But I wonder.
It seems to me that Maier wanted these to be part of her photographs, and I believe she wanted those people walking into and out of the frame to be part of her photographs.
Yes, there is a technical reason for this: These set a context for the central images — the photographs are taken in a city.
Still, I can’t help but feel that these add another aspect of unknowableness to her images.
We can’t know who is in those buildings or who drove and parked that car. But, even if we could, we wouldn’t be able to penetrate to the person inside, just as we can’t penetrate to the person inside the central figures of Maier’s photographs.
Maybe that’s the core of Maier’s art.
Patrick T. Reardon