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December 21, 2011

Vivian Maier - Street Photographer

"Vivian Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) was an American amateur street photographer who was born in New York but grew up in France, and after returning to the U.S., worked for about forty years as a nanny in Chicago. During those years she took about 100,000 photographs, primarily of people and cityscapes most often in Chicago, although she traveled and photographed worldwide." (Quote from Wikipedia article on Vivian Maier)

9 minutes, 33 seconds



9 minutes, 56 seconds
10 minutes, 17 seconds
6 minutes, 5 seconds
The woman shown below, before the video starts, is not Vivian Maier. She is one of Maier's subjects.

Many of Maier's Chicago pictures remind me of some of Bruegel's paintings where there are many, many people packed into the overall scene and much going on -- one to a few people in clusters acting out their own tiny dramas and paying no attention to the others all around, yet all of them fitting equally well into the larger setting.

Netherlandish Provers, 1559, by Pieter Bruegel, the Elder

I feel intrusive when I'm looking at Maier's photographs. I feel that I was right with her as she butted in on other people's private moments. Many street photographs look artful but not intrusive ... They look too carefully composed and they just don't seem to relate to human life in any meaningful way; they may be a "slice of life" but it's not a slice that matters. Many street photographs are neither artful nor intrusive. Many look as if they were not taken by a human being...Somehow they seem to have taken with an invisible camera. Vivian Meiers' photographs look both artful and intrusive -- artful not meaning that her photos look carefully thought out ahead by an "artist," but that she knew exactly when and where to point that camera to best capture the essence of what she was observing; plus the subjects do look in many cases as if they were intruded upon (and sometimes they knew it, and she apparently didn't care that they knew it).

Most of her photographs that I have seen were taken in downtown Chicago, the streets of which seem to have been filled with an unending supply of human interest vignettes that Maier, with camera in hand, must have been constantly on the lookout for. Obviously she was fascinated by human life. She had a sense of humor and a sense of the absurd. She was sympathetic to some, and simply fascinated by others -- by what they were doing, how they presented themselves (wittingly and/or unwittingly) in public and how they related to others (including to her) and to their surroundings.

She knew instinctively what looks odd together, such as the woman holding a doll, the man in a suit, sleeping in his car, his hat hanging on the gearshift, the old gentleman sleeping on his back on the steps of a doorway, his hat to the side (an especially odd sight since we cannot see the man's head). In another picture a well-dressed man's head is missing due to a balloon being held in front of it by a baby he's tending, and in another picture a man, smoking a cigarette, is looking in a window (we see this from inside the room) at second- or third-story level (must be a window washer), and then there's the man with a long beard and dressed as if on safari waiting to cross a street. And lots more.

One reason her photographs, at least the ones I've seen, are so powerful (I think) is that she caught people "living their lives," not posing. Even when someone stops what they're doing to look at the camera because she called their attention for that purpose, as Maier apparently did now and then, it's only for a brief second of their lives and they do not get "out of character" while watching her watching them. So although they're looking right at the photographer the result is not a "posed" picture, but rather a revealing look at the subject's immediate and natural reaction to the situation they suddenly encounter (i.e., they are being photographed), their facial expressions reflecting their own personalities and concerns.

I think we're very lucky that the man who bought Maier's pictures at that auction realized how extraordinary her photos were and has devoted himself to scanning and preserving and sharing them.


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