The Vivian Maier ‘discovery’ story has been covered by The New York Times, TIME Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, the BBC and The Guardian, to name but a few. That’s an illustrious list of media giants, and would be impressive for any artist, let alone a photographer, and especially a ‘street’ photographer. Something about her tale captured the imagination of the wider public, but do the actual photographs warrant the levels of interest their background inspires? On the back of the evidence on show at this Vivian Maier exhibition, yes they do.
From Photofusion’s introduction to the show. “An American of French and Austro-Hungarian extraction, Maier travelled between Europe and the United States before settling in New York City in 1951. Having picked up a camera just two years earlier, she combed the streets of the Big Apple refining her artistic craft. In 1956 Maier left the East Coast for Chicago, where she spent most of her remaining life working as a nanny. She continued shooting well into the 1990s, amassing a collection of over 100,000 negatives.” Those negatives first came to light as recently as 2007, popping up in an auction house in Chicago. That many of the images were on undeveloped rolls of film says a lot – that her appetite for shooting far outweighed her ability (financially, it seems, rather than artistically) or desire to craft, share, or exhibit actual prints.
How one edits 100,000 shots into the 48 on show here boggles the mind. John Maloof is to be applauded, however, for the efforts he has made in the whole affair. The show is only one piece of the project, with a documentary and monograph also forthcoming.
Most photographs on show here are square format, black and white, punchy. They involve a classical mix of street photography elements: the sidewalk faces, the playful children, the down-and-outs, the skyscrapers, the typography of consequence or no consequence your eyes dance over, the personification of city economy machinations, the incongruous but rhyming juxtaposition of expected and unexpected, the wonderful combinations of shape and form that only photography’s distillation of urbanity can conjure. Locations and periods vary, but mostly this is the 1950s, this is New York and Chicago – a heady mix of time and place for any street photography fan. And that time and those places are evoked very strongly indeed.
From the 48 photos I’ve seen in the flesh, and the few dozen more I’ve seen online, I’d consider her constituent ingredients thus:
- 30% Garry Winogrand – the mass of unprocessed negatives, the requisite constant pounding of the streets.
- 25% Dianne Arbus – the 6×6 TLR female photographer, character hungry.
- 15% Helen Levit – the grace of composition, the apparent closer affinity with children rather than adults.
- 10% Gary Stochl – the unknown, self-taught Chicago photographer, discovered late in life.
- 10% Robert Frank – the capture of photons seemingly laced with mid-fifites Americana.
- 5% Cindy Sherman – the hunger with which she seeks mirrors for self-portraits (her dedicated website has a gallery with 40 of them).
- 5% August Sander – the documenter of street trades and trades people and trades people’s faces.
The colour shots on show are just an interesting side note. That ‘early colour’ look has an intriguing palette, and Maier (or the editing process) seems to have had an understanding of how, where and why colour works, but why mix them so freely with the black and white work? The memorabilia on display is a nice touch, though. Her persona, shooting style and workflow are easily imagined after seeing her hats and photos of her cameras and drying negatives over the bath tub.
Could Maier in time be considered an all time great of street photography? The photos are strong enough, but it seems the frenzy that has led to her amazing profile jump in the last couple of years may count against her in the long run. With such an interest comes a hunger to see the photos and see them now, and the temptation for the Maloof foundation has presumably been to publicise and publish a ‘best of’, a retrospective, a summary. That’s understandable, but the best-known and best-loved street photographers have careers: they have early work, they have war periods, they have ill-judged forays into documentary making, they make discoveries of mediums and methods that influence their output over the course of decades. That chronology gives us perspective, and a timeline to anchor the work to. Discovering 100,000 negatives virtually overnight and picking the best output from that body of work compresses that time dimension, and might leave the strongest photos floating in isolation without enough cross-references.
Faith and patience are needed, I suppose. As far as I know the work that has been outed so far might be less a best of, more a taster. Let’s see what the monograph brings, and let’s see what the Maloof Foundation can give us over two or five years. Only then can we judge.
This show is quite the feather in the cap for the small studio/darkroom/education centre/gallery in Brixton. What active part they played in securing the show, and what part it was due to a fortuitous connection with the London Street Photography Festival, I don’t know, but it is well presented, well-lit, and the best exhibition I’ve seen in such a shared space for a long time. Even if these don’t transpire to be Important photographs, they are certainly Bloody Good photographs.
Vivian Maier is on show at Photofusion until 16th September (yes, three days left at the time of writing, but hey, who was ever going to go on the back of a Cronbi review?)