Book Review: Vivian Maier, Street Photographer
powerHouse Books, 2011. $39.95 Foreword by Geoff Dyer. ISBN: 978-1-57687-577-3
The term 'Street photography' carries a lot of connotations, and not all of them positive. Of the countless photographers given the label 'street photographer' the worst are opportunists - vultures feeding on the sad, the filthy and the violent. But the best are visual historians, and their work is timeless.
To take just two examples of the latter, Bill Brandt and Henri Cartier-Bresson were street portraitists of the highest order, but they were also absurdists, influenced by the sense of humour, as well as the visual sensibilities of the Surrealists and Cubists who were their contemporaries. Saul Leiter, likewise, took photographs on the street, but he was so much more than 'just' a street photographer, and incorporated the influence of an energetic generation of modern artists in his post-war work.
The same is true of Vivian Maier. Currently enjoying a considerable degree of posthumous fame, little is known about her life. We do know she was a career nanny in Chicago, and we also know that she took hundreds of thousands of photographs over four decades before her death in 2009.
There is much to be fascinated by in Maier’s life and work, but perhaps what I find most interesting is that after spending a long time looking at this book, I can find no steady thread of consistency in her style. The work in 'Street Photographer' is extraordinarily eclectic, and the collective effect is stunning - pulling off the rare trick of combining the stylistic restlessness of the amateur with the steady hand and studied gaze of experience.
Looking through this collection, it's impossible not to be struck by the sheer variety. Here is a surreal detail - a shopkeeper’s feet peeking out from under a window display that could have come straight out of Bill Brandt’s 'The English at Home'. But here is a violent flash-lit shot of a bloodied man being dragged down a street by police, which is pure Weegee. Turn a few more pages and you’ll find an oddly unsettling beach scene, dominated by the prone figure of man either sleeping or dead, around whom sand has blown into tiny dunes.
And then there are Maier’s disturbingly intimate portraits of derelicts - all men - which are reminiscent of the visceral blackness of some of the images in Don McCullin’s post-Vietnam collection 'Homecoming'. Elsewhere though you might recognise the distant, gentlemanly gaze of Cartier-Bresson, and an amused, cock-eyed focus on street-level details - feet, legs, backsides - which recalls Elliot Erwitt. Nothing is captioned; everything is open to interpretation.
Vivian Maier is one of those exceptionally rare things - an artist without a biography. She can’t tell us why she took these photographs, or explain what or who she was influenced by so it’s up to us to decide, if we want to. All we have to go on is the images she left behind.
As such, Maier is a gift to critics, who I have no doubt will busy themselves defining her 'value' and what her work 'means' for quite some time to come. My advice is to find this book in your local bookshop, and spend an hour or so leafing through it. 'Street Photographer' is an exhilarating collection and a welcome reminder that greatness and fame are two very different things.
'Vivian Maier, Street Photographer' is available on Amazon.com
Barnaby Britton is Reviews Editor of dpreview.com. You can see a selection of his after-hours work at www.photoinsensitive.com