© Vivian Maier / Maloof Collection
In October 2009, John Maloof, a 28-year-old estate agent living in Chicago, posted an enquiry on the ‘Hardcore Street Photography’ Flickr page. “I purchased a giant lot of negatives from a small auction house here in Chicago,” he wrote. “It is the work of Vivian Maier, a French-born photographer who recently passed away in April of 2009.
“I have a ton of her work (about 30-40,000 negatives) which ranges in dates from the 1950’s-1970’s. I guess my question is, what do I do with this stuff? Is this type of work worthy of exhibitions, a book? Or do bodies of work like this come up often? Any direction would be great.”
Maloof’s tentative request for information and opinions, with a link to his Vivian Maier website, led to the first significant interest in Vivian Maier’s extraordinary body of work. Within hours, he had hundreds of replies, including offers of book deals, exhibitions and even documentary films. It was the beginning of one of the most intriguing photography stories to emerge in recent years.
Soon the explosion of web interest led to TV and newspaper coverage, then the first exhibitions of Maier’s photographs. Now Vivian Maier’s work has come to the UK and a selection of her vast archive was recently on show at the Photofusion gallery in Brixton, south London.
Why is the photographic community so excited about Maier’s work? Brett Jefferson Stott, Director of the London Street Photography Festival and responsible for bringing Vivian Maier’s exhibition to the UK, says the enthusiasm shown for her work is due to its irresistible mixture of the quality of her images and the mystery which surrounds her life.
First, there’s the content of her images. “She possessed a wonderful photographer’s eye and didn’t discriminate,” he says. “She focuses on the poor and wealthy in equal measure. She made photos of mink-coated women and the cracked heels of a destitute pensioner – her photographs depict an honest America, warts and all.”
Vivian Maier’s work isn’t just interesting in terms of subject-matter; she was also highly skilled in her use of the camera (most often a Rolleiflex) and her images are technically accomplished. “Maier possessed a deep understanding of composition and lighting,” Stott continues. “I am told her strike rate was quite high. I have the impression that she did not posses the best of people skills yet she commanded an orchestra of intense complexity from behind her camera.
“She interacted with her subjects and this is a defining factor for me in her resulting images. Perhaps because she was a woman and because she took pictures from the waist, she was unthreatening and opened up possibilities beyond her male counterparts.”
Running alongside the appreciation of her work is the puzzling enigma of Vivian Maier herself: a solitary woman who worked as a nanny, who appeared to have no friends and who photographed obsessively but never showed it to anyone; someone who died alone, with little money and her artistic talents completely unrecognised.
“She literally lived her life through her photographs,” says Stott. “You can imagine her thoughts and aspirations through her subjects – the poor people in her pictures reflecting her own background and the rich her employers. Vivian Maier’s work epitomises the essence of Street Photography, in that it celebrates the ordinary as extraordinary and champions the beauty in the everyday.”
Nick Turpin, founder of the In-Public group of Street Photographers, agrees. “The first time I saw the work of Vivian Maier I immediately recognised the work of a fellow Street Photographer,” he says. “She was a quiet ghost wafting along the sidewalk unhurried, unnoticed and unremarkable, pausing just long enough to record a moment of the mundane street and in her own way elevate it into something special and beautiful.
“The work is quiet, composed, simple, beautifully consistent and made with such apparent ease. She undoubtedly had a remarkable talent that is rare to find, which was coupled with a clear, almost compulsive, passion for the medium. Like a typical Street Photographer, Maier didn’t conceptually burden herself; she simply used and celebrated whatever she found.”
How does Vivian Maier compare to the major photographers of her generation who photographed on America’s streets – Robert Frank, Lisette Model, Diane Arbus or Harry Callahan? “I see Vivian as a one-off,” Turpin says. “It’s very difficult to compare her to others of her generation and yet retrospectively she is as significant and as important as the very best of them.”
With the excitement generated amongst fellow photographers, a book being written and a documentary film in production, plus the fact that countless more unseen Vivian Maier images are yet to be revealed, it seems likely that her posthumous fame is only likely to increase.
i was looking at some online photography websites and came across the article above and the photo of the older couple sitting on a bus…i love the photo and would be so interesting to see how it was taken…when i am in prague or london or paris and travel on the tube or other public transport, i see lots of little situations or stories or just interesting people that i would love to photograph but i rarely do – because i am not sure how to approach it – do you ask for a permission ? well than the little moment you wanted to catch on the camera is obviously gone…do you just take out your camera and take the picture as an intruder to someone’s private moment that is not meant to be recorded, especially by a total stranger… i guess the couple on the photo above was fast asleep so could not really object to being photographed but were they awake would they like the image ?
i love the numbers on the seats before the couple and the people peeking in the background…it is so simple but so strong, a summary of a long term marriage, a marriage as a long journey on a bus, the road is a bit bumpy, sometime boring, sometime exciting scenery to admire, a slightly grumpy passenger next to you but someone who you could lean on or even put your head on his shoulder….