A fully clothed man asleep on a beach, children playing with water from a hydrant on a hot day, a man doing a headstand outside a striptease club, a couple arguing in the street: these are rare glimpses of street life caught on film by a then-unknown photographer.
On many levels, Vivian Maier was an ordinary woman of the mid-twentieth century: a sweatshop worker and then a nanny who lived in New York and Chicago for most of her life. But she was also extraordinary. She had a photographer’s eye, knowing how to compose pictures beautifully and powerfully and how to use light to its best effect. The images of the sailors at Grand Central Station and the businessmen in bowler hats show how lighting and the contrast it creates is integral to the atmosphere and composition of the overall pictures.
Added to this was Maier’s ability to catch, what Henri Cartier-Bresson called, ‘the decisive moment’. Timing is everything. Knowing when the different elements of a shot are going to come together perfectly is crucial to the success of any picture. The boys playing with water has the group decreasing in height, with the newly sprung jets of water spraying up away from them against a backdrop of tall buildings. The circle of children around the boys is looking inwards. It’s all perfectly timed.
Photography as Interior Design?
One could argue that Maier was an interior designer on the move. Framing a picture, like furnishing a room, involves an understanding of composition, light, colours and contrast and how these elements can be best put together in a balanced way that works. Creating a design out of life in motion – if only for an instant – is a skill that truly great photographers possess.
Who was Vivian Maier?
Where and how did Maier learn this art? She was born in New York in 1926 to a French mother and an Austrian father. Some of her early life was spent in France, living with her mother and near her mother’s relations. When her father left the family temporarily in 1930 (it’s not known why), a successful photographer, Jeanne Bertrand, lived with them. Perhaps his presence introduced a need to capture fleeting moments on film.
Up until 1951, Maier lived in France and America. When she was 25, however, she moved to New York, where she worked in a sweatshop for four years. This tough existence may have influenced what she caught on film later. Some of her more famous photographs are of those on the fringes of society: down-and-outs, poor children, women on the breadline and affluent women in their furs and finery.
Maier then spent most of her forty-year career working as a nanny and a carer in Chicago’s North Shore. She often took the children with her on her photographic excursions to the city, showing them the less affluent side of life.
Apart from her one trip around the world by herself in 1959-60 (possibly financed by inheritance money), Maier seemed to have lived on a relatively low income. Despite this, she never published any of her material while she was alive. When she could no longer afford to keep up with payments on rented storage space in 2007, the auctioneer sold off her material.
Maier’s New-found Fame
One of the three buyers was John Maloof, a collector who blogged about her images and shared them on Flickr in October 2009. Her work went viral – six months after she had passed away. Like Van Gogh of the art world, she never benefitted financially from her new-found fame. A private and shadowy person who observed life from the edges, it’s difficult to say if she would ever have published her work herself and how she would have reacted to the limelight if she had.
Maier’s legacy is a vast archive of over 150,000 photographs (not including the rolls of films that she never developed) and audio tapes of interviews with some of the subjects. Her collection of work is unprecedented, not only because she documented twentieth-century life in such detail, but because she captured women and children’s lives in a way that hadn’t been seen before.
To see more of her work, go to vivianmaier.com. (Photographs are shown here by the kind permission of John Maloof.)