Vivien Maier was an amateur photographer born 1st February 1926 in New York City but raised in France. Maier moved back to the United States and is thought to have moved to Chicago in 1956 where she spent 40 years working as a nanny. During this period she documented the streets of Illinois, thus earning her precise title of street photographer. The voluminous work and scant personal details of the supposed street photographer make Maier’s work all the more intriguing and seductive.
Maier, as well as her work, are that of a true enigma. There is next to no context or information to her thousands of images or herself. I managed to discover through various Internet sites that Maier was an odd character, secretive and a loner. She even took a world tour alone! Yet Maier was fearless and a rare talent, evident in her up close and candid images of those walking the streets she too walked. Maier moved from family to family, house to house, never owning her own property and so kept her belongings and masses of photographs from her travels and the streets in storage lockers in Chicago.
As a result, her artistic eye, which captured such beautiful images, remained unseen, hidden from the public gaze and outer influences, locked away in storage containers. No one was supposed to or would have ever seen her images but by chance they were found. Maier had stopped paying her rent on her various lockers. By 2007, in arrears on her storage lockers, their contents were sold and then auctioned. Before long, Vivien Maier went viral: her images selling for thousands of dollars a piece.
Maier’s’ images of the characters on the streets on Illinois are just captivating. A regular person in no way could capture the streets the way Maier has managed to. The diversity, closeness and rawness of each image take talent, practice and time. I feel that Maier must have labored over them, working out what she liked and didn’t like. I feel that because she had no one else commenting on them and didn’t share her images with anyone, made her more self-critical, concise and self-aware: she herself was the author, viewer and critic. As a result her images all possess a very clear idea and style.
So how did Maier photograph her subjects? Maier had various cameras but it is thought that her Rolleiflex was her favourite tool, which created large square negatives. For Maier everything came through better when framed within a square. Her subjects would often be central within the frame, highlighting the subject more effectively, drawing your eye in. The images are reminiscent to the works of August Sander and Richard Avedon, strong, black and white and ‘square’ portraits, focused and powerful. It taps into our human unconscious that these images are truthful. In the present day Maier’s images are often printed large and square, which I feel is influenced by both the original prints and things we’ve seen before with such images, such as Sander or Avedon.
I admire Maier’s persistence and commitment to take so many images of the same streets in Illinois. I wonder what it would be like to document the streets of Coventry for the next 40 years; however, I won’t be the one up to it! I myself adore Maier’s images of children. I too love photographing children but wouldn’t be brave enough to go ahead and take a photo of one out on the streets. This too is admirable that Maier saw no limits, just great images and subjects. I want to set myself a task of photographing people on the streets with a small, inoffensive film camera.