Vivian Maier – London Street Photography Festival 2011

Vivian Maier, (1926-2009), photographed the streets of New York and Chicago from the early 1950s through to the 1990s.  She was not a photographer by profession, but a nanny, and she built up a private collection of more than 100,000 images.  Her work was discovered by John Maloof in 2007 when part of it came up for sale in a thrift auction.

Based upon the images in the exhibition, Maier focused her camera, (a twin lens reflex I believe), very much on people rather than places. Her images are generally candid and close up.  Often she depicts poverty – I must admit I wondered how some of the down and outs she depicts reacted to having their photograph taken – especially by a woman in the 1950s.  Take a look at ‘Sept 24, 1959, New York, NY‘ for example.

I found some of her images very striking:

  • the direct impassive stare of the man in ‘May, 1953, New York, NY‘ intimidates its viewers
  • the huddled and hopeless body language of the man in ‘1953, New York, NY’ renders the depiction of his face unnecessary.
  • the filthy scowling boys in ‘Undated Canada‘ whose clothes and barren surroundings suggest that they have nothing.
I could relate her work to that of some other photographers – but obviously have no way of knowing what her influences might have been.  For example, the reflection of a severe woman in ‘untitled, undated‘ reminds me in style of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Alicante.  I could envisage Elliott Erwitt having a take on an image like ‘January, 1956, Chicage, IL‘.  And finally, as a one-off, Weegee’s influences on ‘Christmas Eve of 1953, 78th St & 3rd Ave. New York, NY’ seem clear.  It also struck me that, to my mind at least, some of her images seem very contemporary, for example ‘1955, New York, NY‘.
All in all, a very interesting exhibition.  It also included half-a-dozen colour prints which made very striking use of the colour yellow in particular, see ‘August 1975‘ – another image with a contemporary fee.  In addition to the prints there were also examples of Maier’s experiments with 8mm film – although, I’m my opinion, these lacked the sharp focus that the framing of the stills was able to bring about.

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