Imagine going to an auction and purchasing a repossessed box of film, only to later discover you’ve bought 30,000 negatives created by an unknown woman who promises to be one of the great street photographers of the 20th Century. That’s exactly what happened to John Maloof, a 29-year-old real estate agent who made his purchase in 2007, hoping he might find some vintage images for a book on a Chicago neighborhood.
The master Maloof discovered was Vivian Maier, a former nanny who died in obscurity not too long thereafter — at the age of 83 in April 2009. Ironically, it was just about that time that Maloof seemed to have fully appreciated the treasure he was sitting on. Although it was too late to contact Maier, it wasn’t too late to become her champion. Seized by the excitement of having discovered a great artist, Maloof diligently searched out more of Maier’s work, and began to promote her genius. As a result, he now owns no less than 100,000 Maier negatives, most of which have never been seen by the public, and many of which await development.
Although Maier has been a story for some time, I discovered her only recently, when a friend sent me an email promising to lead me to a collection of “amazing photographs.” I’ve received many such emails over the years, and while I’ve often enjoyed the result, I’ve never been amazed – until now.
Vivian Maier is quite a force. A recluse who apparently was loved by those few who knew her, she took to the streets with her camera during the second half of the 20th Century. The result is a collection of perfectly-exposed images that sharply capture the times in beautiful black & white. While the subjects vary, her portraits of random encounters are among her strongest images. In these we see isolated individuals — sometimes posing, sometimes observing, sometimes lost in thought — belonging precisely where we find them, in well-composed settings (usually slices of the city) that add to the story.
Looking at Maier’s images makes you feel like you’ve traveled through time to a place far far away — and it is this nostalgic fermentation which surely is part of the charm. But the faces painted across her canvas — noble faces, fragile faces, faces of concern, anger, surprise, hubris, bemusement, concentration, joy, pain and quiet desperation — speak to a timelessness of condition common to all generations.
In Maier, we also see something of the chameleon at work. While her eye, sensibility, and technical expertise is that of a master, I wonder about her aesthetic, that special signature that sets her apart. I’m sure that it’s there, but for now, as I continue to explore her images, I can’t help but see the style (if not the influence) of others — the street drama of a Helen Levitt, the humor of an Elliott Erwitt, the compositional geometry of a Cartier-Bresson, the conscious voyeurism of a Lee Friedlander. To be clear: this isn’t a criticism; few photographers are so multidimensional.
Another master who comes to mind is, of course, Diane Arbus. While Arbus appears to have had the darker vision, both women appreciated the Absurd, sharing an existential sensibility that surely inspired them to seek out souls caught in a moment of isolation. And as others have noted, there’s also Lisette Model, who may have been a direct influence.
If you’re a lover of street photography, I strongly recommend that you explore Maier when you have some quiet time. John Maloof’s website, simply titled, Vivian Maier, is a good place to start, as is the always excellent New York Times LENS.