Photo Book Review: Vivian Maier: Street Photographer

Vivian maierStreet photography is increasingly popular as people are able to wander in big cities with small cameras. Many of the great photographers worked in the street, including Eugène Atget, Bernice Abbott, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Saul Leiter, and many others.

One photographer who shot in the street for decades and was unknown was Vivian Maier, a French-American woman who worked as a nanny. In 2007, photographer John Maloof bought a trunk containing negatives and undeveloped rolls of film and found a treasure trove of pictures that can now be seen as embodying the true spirit of this form of photography. He has published some of them in Vivian Maier: Street Photographer. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

This book shows that Maier was either influenced by other photographers, or developed her own style. Since she never published or exhibited her work, and wasn’t involved with other photographers, it’s hard to know how much she was influenced by others.

This book is full of fascinating photos of everyday life, mostly in Chicago. Maier had a true talent for capturing people at the edge, and people in surprising situations. And she took a lot of self-portraits, in windows and mirrors, which show a certain truculence toward the act of taking photos.

Beautifully printed, this book has one problem: most of the photos are sepia toned. Since Maier herself didn’t make these prints, it’s hard to know if that would have been her intention. (She died in 2009.) I don’t see the point of toning the photos like this; they would look fine in plain black and white (as the images below show very well).

This is a very interesting book for those who appreciate street photography. It shows just how much this genre of photography can express, much more than the more or less random images that pass for street photography these days on the photo sharing sites. Anyone who does shoot street photography can learn a lot from the compositions in this book, and anyone who appreciates photos will find a wealth of fascinating pictures.

Here are a few examples:

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769 march 1954

6 thoughts on “Photo Book Review: Vivian Maier: Street Photographer

  1. The documentary is actually OK, once it moves away from the filmmaker and focuses on the subject. He was able to find many people who remembered her and provided great details. What struck me was how nearly all the interview subjects, incl many photographers, wondered why she didn’t “go pro”, sell her work, have shows, etc. I think the answer was she got something unique to herself out of the act of taking the pictures, and past that wasn’t interested in a reputation or job as a photographer.

    I wrote a blog post (http://www.brownstudy.info/2015/03/05/documentaries-dreams-of-a-life-finding-vivian-maier/) on the Maier documentary and a second documentary on a different type of ‘forgotten’ woman, “Dreams of a Life,” that kind of turned into one of the more unintentionally depressing double-features ever. Hard to get the stories of these two women out of one’s mind.

  2. The documentary is actually OK, once it moves away from the filmmaker and focuses on the subject. He was able to find many people who remembered her and provided great details. What struck me was how nearly all the interview subjects, incl many photographers, wondered why she didn’t “go pro”, sell her work, have shows, etc. I think the answer was she got something unique to herself out of the act of taking the pictures, and past that wasn’t interested in a reputation or job as a photographer.

    I wrote a blog post (http://www.brownstudy.info/2015/03/05/documentaries-dreams-of-a-life-finding-vivian-maier/) on the Maier documentary and a second documentary on a different type of ‘forgotten’ woman, “Dreams of a Life,” that kind of turned into one of the more unintentionally depressing double-features ever. Hard to get the stories of these two women out of one’s mind.

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