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Book Review: Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, Edited by John Maloof, with an Essay by Geoff Dyer

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Real estate agent John Maloof was researching a book on the history of Chicago’s Northwest side when he purchased a group of photographic negatives at a storage unit auction. Maloof was not yet schooled in the art of street photography, but grew obsessed with his find and sought out more until he had amassed over 100,000 negatives, a third of which had not yet been processed. Maloof hoped to ask the photographer for tips, but sadly, when he finally came across the person’s name, a Google search came up with just one item: an obituary published just days earlier.


Her name was Vivian Maier. This artist who made a lifetime’s worth of photographs but had never showed them in public was a New York-born nanny who died in Chicago in 2009 at the age of 83. If you follow photography circles online you may have heard of her. If you haven’t seen her work, from Maloof’s first inquiries on Flickr to this handsome mongraph and accompanying exhibition at New York’s prestigious Howard Greenberg Gallery, you may well wonder if the work lives up to the hype.

 

Absolutely.

In an introduction to the book, critic Geoff Dyer notes that Maier’s work at times resembles that of Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt, Walker Evans, and others, and wonders if this influence was conscious or simply a photography student’s projections. But video of Maier’s belongings shows the book collection of someone well-versed in photography, from old-school photographers like Berenice Abbott and Cecil Beaton, to contemporaries like Thomas Struth (see the 5:26 in this clip from WTTW’s Chicago Tonight Show.

Maier’s work may recall more familiar names, but her vision is very much her own: fresh and inquisitive, spontaneous as well as disciplined. Maier’s distinct photographic voice is at ease as a street portraitist, a documentarian of vernacular business signs, an abstract artist, and finally a self-portraitist. As obsessed as the man who discovered her work, she carried her camera everywhere. Some of her most striking images are shot on or from public transit:  the elegant woman in front of the main branch of the NYPL, the peacefully sleeping elderly couple on a bus.

Her pictures are at once artfully self-conscious and hilarious, as in the grocery store window dresser whose work shoes are caught peeking out from the stacks of canned peaches. Her eye is as sharp from distant shots of crowds to intimate portraits of strangers — eyeing her suspiciously, vamping for the lens, or simply going about their business. Maier’s timing is the envy of any photographer: the smouldering shell of an armchair left to burn on a curbside; the brilliant self-portrait she must have seen happening and planned out to the second as a worker moving glass plates leaves but a perfect moment for the photographer to capture her reflection — and she gets it.

You’ll get it, too. In an era when everybody wants to be and is a photographer and can instantly share their work, Maier’s quiet persistence in obscurity gives one hope for visual wheat among the chaff.

 

[Photo from Vivian Maier: Street Photographer photographs by Vivian Maier, edited by John Maloof, published by powerHouse Books.]

 

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.