Book review: “Vivian Maier: Street Photographer,” edited by John Maloof

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Book review: “Vivian Maier: Street Photographer,” edited by John Maloof

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.

Undated, New York, NY

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.

 

Disturbing

sVM...10...I find her photos disturbing enough to think there’s something there. And maybe that’s why I was drawn to the woman crossing the street.

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.

 

Purposeful?

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.

Undated, New York, NY

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.

Undated

 

Heading where?

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.

Undated, New York, NY

Or this one from the upper right corner of a portrait of a boy with two baseball mitts and a model airplane.

September 3, 1954. New York, NY

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?

 

Unknowableness

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.

September 1956, New York, NY

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.

VM_JACKET.indd

Maybe that’s the core of Maier’s art.

Patrick T. Reardon
5.29.15

2 Comments

  1. Fascinating perspective on Maier’s work. As someone who indulges in street photography pretty much every day, I found your observations extremely interesting.

    Most photography is about choice, even studio photography where the photographer theoretically has everything under control. Perhaps you decide to add another reflector, or move the flower prop an inch to the left, or stop down to gain more depth of field.

    Street photography is about choices, too, in my experience. I shoot mailboxes in the city for fun and post the shots on Instagram and Facebook. But each shot involves a series of choices. What point of view? What angle? How far away should I stand? What do I want visible in the background? How will I manipulate the capture later (cropping, contrast, color) and what can I do now to make those future choices as potent as possible? How can I best use the available light? Of course, the mailboxes aren’t going anywhere so most of the time you have time to make these decisions. But then the other important element of street photography comes into play — opportunity.

    About a week ago I stood photographing a mailbox at the corner of Damen and Argyle. I shot it from across the street, from the right, and from the left. At one point I noticed a letter carrier pushing a mail satchel cart across Damen. I positioned myself and waited. As the carrier walked briskly along Argyle I snapped the shutter just as she entered the frame, with the mailbox still visible at left. Then I prayed that I caught her in stride in a way that would contribute to the graphic interest of the shot. I got lucky. It’s now one of my favorite #mailboxoftheday images.

    So I suspect that Vivian Maier went through a similar process in composing her photographs. First, seeing the subject matter. Then choosing angle, point of view, depth of field, background etc., if she had the time to make those choices. And finally, being sensitive to opportunities as they presented themselves, including the out-of-focus people who happened into the frame. Often these choices had to have been made quickly to capture the exact moment when the child smiles or the fashionable woman turns her head. For other shots she most likely took her time and was very deliberate in her compositions, as with the perfectly framed, blurry, tilting building shot through the window of the car with the man sleeping peacefully in tack-sharp focus on the front seat.

    I’m being a little long-winded here but I have to tell you one more story. Thirty years ago I did a series of photographs of Ravenswood L stations. One evening I was shooting at Wabash and Adams. I noticed a lonely-looking woman standing on the west platform waiting for a southbound train. I ran up onto the walking bridge that connected the two platforms to get a shot of her from a high angle. Later, going over the contact sheets, I noticed another woman in the frame approaching the first woman from the right. She was in the shadows and her head was “cut off” by an overhanging sign, but her somewhat mysterious presence made the shot for me as much as the silhouette of the other woman who was the focal point of the image. This time it wasn’t choices or planning or seizing an opportunity — it was a happy (visually speaking) accident. Which brings up the final part of the process: Choosing which image to print (or post) and how to crop it, dodge and burn it (making some parts of the image lighter or darker), increase or decrease contrast etc. I suspect for some of the Maier images she took multiple exposures and later chose the best one based on a variety of criteria, including what other figures may have happened into the frame. Not sure if she did the choosing, or perhaps Maloof, or a curator. I don’t think she printed herself, if memory serves. I seem to remember seeing evidence of her sending negatives to Central Camera on Wabash with printing instructions.

    Again, I really enjoyed the review, Pat.

    • Patrick T. Reardon says:

      Thanks for the delightful comment, Floyd. I too wondered about who chose the images for the book. My memory from the movie about her is that she didn’t print many of her negatives.

      I wonder if one looked at, say, 1000 of her images, would you see the backs of a lot of people walking away or a lot of people walking into and out of the frame? And how would this compare to other street photographers?

      I’d read an essay about that.

      Pat

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