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

Comments

Total comments: 150
12
psycho_jim
By psycho_jim (Feb 19, 2012)

An informative video about this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWEDOnBfDUI

0 upvotes
aardvark7
By aardvark7 (Feb 19, 2012)

She is now the photographer to whose talent I most aspire and I will certainly be buying the book.

A fabulous eye and yet she wasn't looking for acknowledgement, but apparently pursued her own interests and enjoyment.

Unfortunately, we are unlikely ever to see her kind again.

If I was to attain even a tenth of her artistic skill, no-one would ever see my work as it would all be on transitory electronic storage and the likelihood of it being of any use when I die, let alone anyone having sufficient curiosity to investigate, is small indeed.

2 upvotes
Photomonkey
By Photomonkey (Feb 19, 2012)

Hers is a great story. I wonder how many other photographers we will discover in the coming years.

1 upvote
ogl
By ogl (Feb 19, 2012)

Genius...I saw this works last year...Impressed.

0 upvotes
Dan Wagner
By Dan Wagner (Feb 19, 2012)

I too admire a great many of the photographs by Vivian Maier taken with her Rolleiflex T. In my opinion, the book has a few strange image choices -- such as a photograph of a lone pigeon, and several others. I viewed Maier's show at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in NYC, and it was quite good -- there were several photos on display that in my opinion could have been substituted for a few in the book. No matter.

About the review by Barney Britton. I thought the opening paragraph labeling other street photographers as opportunists and vultures to reflect poorly on the reviewer. There is no such thing as an image that shouldn't be shot. Those who would tell others what they can and cannot shoot are snobs and worse. :) The final two images in the review are of destitute homeless people -- was not the reviewer aware of how hypocritical this would make his words appear? You have to laugh.

Maier's work is eclectic because she shot in the city on her days off.

7 upvotes
Damo83
By Damo83 (Feb 19, 2012)

Starting price US $99.00

0 upvotes
Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Feb 19, 2012)

Yeah, I just saw that... well if you're lucky your local book store may have a couple of copies left for the (much lower) sticker price. That's how I got mine.

Comment edited 12 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
makofoto
By makofoto (Feb 19, 2012)

In a short while Amazon will have Used copies for sale, typically at a great discount and in my experience, almost always Like New.

0 upvotes
steveh0607
By steveh0607 (Feb 19, 2012)

My photo club has a presentation of her work. I thought it was brilliant. And the most telling thing is that only small fraction of her photographs have been catalogued and printed. It will take years to fully uncover this remarkable woman.

0 upvotes
professor4321
By professor4321 (Feb 19, 2012)

And not a pixel to peep!

4 upvotes
AEPS
By AEPS (Feb 19, 2012)

I preordered this book the day I read about it in American Photographer magazine. I enjoyed every moment that I studied each photograph after the book arrived. I agree with the reviewer except for one point. He stated:

"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."

Instead of leafing through it in the bookstore, I would recommend buying it and adding it to your library as it is a book that any photography enthusiast will treasure.

5 upvotes
dstate1
By dstate1 (Feb 19, 2012)

Buying the book ensures there will be more to come..."leafing through" is the death of printed material. If you love it you need to pay for it.

2 upvotes
makofoto
By makofoto (Feb 19, 2012)

Agree ... and as I stated above ... used copies will soon be available from Amazon

0 upvotes
tmy
By tmy (Feb 28, 2012)

go buy it. beautiful photography and an investment that will inspire your photgraphy more than any overrated gadget or f/1.2 prime lens will.
it should be noted that she used ONE camera for all her work. which was a Rolleiflex with a fixed standard lens (80mm).

0 upvotes
Cerumen
By Cerumen (Feb 19, 2012)

Love the book. Love the back story.
Visiting a gallery showing of her work yesterday at the Steven Kasher Gallery on
521 West 23 Street, NY NY.
I have her book, but there's nothing like seeing 12 x 12 proper printings.

0 upvotes
Nikonworks
By Nikonworks (Feb 19, 2012)

My first thought is who is making money on her work and how did that person gain access to the photographs and rights to publish them.

I hope DPReview will add this vital information to the posting of the story,
as it is a glaring omission, especially from one of the top photography web sites.

Adding the info as a remark will not suffice,

It should be in the headline article itself.

Thank you.

0 upvotes
GuyCl
By GuyCl (Feb 19, 2012)

Fantastic book, and checkout http://www.vivianmaier.com/research/history/ for the whole story.

0 upvotes
steveh0607
By steveh0607 (Feb 19, 2012)

Also, boxes of undeveloped film. Only the surface of her work has been scratched.

She photographed then developed the negatives, only printing very few images. She was very secretive about her work that's why it was a chance find.

0 upvotes
makofoto
By makofoto (Feb 19, 2012)

I hope all of that film has been developed by now! It degrades so quickly, from heat and cosmic radiation, getting grainy and flat.

0 upvotes
tmy
By tmy (Feb 28, 2012)

The person that discovered her work was a real estate agent named John Maloof, who was also a president of a historical society. It was bought at a furniture and antique auction.
Most of this info is in the book itself. We only received a copy of this book at our studio about a month ago, and I have to say I love it. Really great work. And also the lack of "fame" and being"recognized" gives the work the certain modesty that is so uncommon in this day and age.
Also compliments to DPReview for highlighting this book. So much of this website is crowded by long winded naysaying arguments by the users about camera tech, bokeh, image quality and the rest, that it is nice to see some real photography!

0 upvotes
Joe Josephs
By Joe Josephs (Feb 19, 2012)

Check out
http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/16/vivian-maier/
and for someone who did gain fame & fortune, check out
http://twistedsifter.com/2011/12/stanley-kubricks-new-york-photos-1940s/#.Tz47GWG38X8.twitter

Comment edited 7 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
brisstreet
By brisstreet (Feb 19, 2012)

I have the book and it is truly remarkable. Not having a dialogue about either the photographs or the photographer make the images more "mysterious" for me. An amateur is one who loves. These photographs show us Vivian's love, even if it is unexplained.

3 upvotes
Tape5
By Tape5 (Feb 19, 2012)

One of a handful of contemporary photographers who never took any credits for the complexities she discovered in photography and study of shadows. Very rare.

1 upvote
Jule
By Jule (Feb 19, 2012)

Highly recommended indeed.

Kind Regards

0 upvotes
ljclark
By ljclark (Feb 19, 2012)

I pre-ordered the book. When it arrived I was stunned.

This is certainly street photography. But I wonder if the same ethos would have been applied had she lived out on the prairies somewhere. Maybe not, because she might have found other things to do in her off hours. I guess the point is that we'll never know.

However, I think the reviewer missed some avenues of comparison by tending to emphasize the "street" at the expense of "photography". We need to go back a little farther in history to bring the focus back to the subjects rather than where they happen to have been located. One point of comparison is the work of another woman photographer -- Dorothea Lange. Lange's shooting ethos was based upon three considerations: Hands off...A sense of place...A sense of time.

Application of the genre "Street Photography" to this book is accurate, but incomplete. The "how" is important, but not nearly so much as the "what".

Spend some time with this incredible book.

Comment edited 30 seconds after posting
2 upvotes
ljclark
By ljclark (Feb 19, 2012)

Two Dorothea Lange quotes:

"... my own approach is based upon three considerations. First – hands off ! Whenever I photograph I do not molest or tamper with or arrange. Second – a sense of place. I try to picture as part of its surroundings, as having roots. Third – a sense of time. Whatever I photograph, I try to show as having its position in the past or in the present."

"This benefit of seeing...can come only if you pause a while, extricate yourself from the maddening mob of quick impressions ceaselessly battering our lives, and look thoughtfully at a quiet image...the viewer must be willing to pause, to look again, to meditate."

4 upvotes
makofoto
By makofoto (Feb 19, 2012)

"Sense of place," ... I need to step back a little in my photography

0 upvotes
GaryJP
By GaryJP (Feb 19, 2012)

Astounding talent. I've loved her work for some time.

1 upvote
magneto shot
By magneto shot (Feb 19, 2012)

why does a talent have to die before one gets recognized?

0 upvotes
dstate1
By dstate1 (Feb 19, 2012)

In this case she seems to have cared little if she was recognized. It was for her own gratification...perhaps that's why it's SO good.

3 upvotes
makofoto
By makofoto (Feb 19, 2012)

Odd, on the one hand she couldn't have been super shy to take those shots, yet she didn't seem to recognize the value of her own skill's. Most folks want some type of validation of their work. One would think she would naturally compare her work with our recognized Masters and come to the conclusion that she could "compete." I wonder if the photo magazines of the day could look up to see if she at least subscribed to their publications?

0 upvotes
rodek
By rodek (Feb 19, 2012)

Pictures taken direct out of the daily life

0 upvotes
CameraLabTester
By CameraLabTester (Feb 19, 2012)

Remarkable and amazing.

0 upvotes
Total comments: 150
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