by Jonathan Blaustein

Unless you’ve been locked away in a pretend spaceship, like those Russian astronauts, you’ve likely heard the name Vivian Maier in the last year or so. It would be almost impossible to have avoided her name entirely, though you might not be exactly sure who she is/was, or why her name stuck in your head. So allow me to clear up any confusion.

I can’t think of a parallel really. It’s almost like when Nintendo first came out back in the day. (Oh Mike Tyson’s Punch-out, where have you been?) One day, no one had heard the name Nintendo, and within a few months, every one of your friends had one. (Except me. I was the dunce that bought Sega, pre-Sega Genesis. Ouch.) But, clearly, I digress.

Ms. Maier was a prolific street photographer who lived in Chicago, and spent time in New York as well. She died, an unknown, in 2009. (Thereby pulling a Van Gogh part Deux, what with the exclusively post-humous fame.) A local Chicago historian discovered her archives, and the rest, as they say, is _______. Now that this work has been everywhere, (an exhibition opens today in Santa Fe at the Monroe Gallery,) it’s finally been released in book form by powerHouse. Apparently, there were something like 100,000 negatives to digest, so before you even open the book, you’re impressed by the sheer editorial effort.

Once you open it up and get started, it’s an odd experience, though thoroughly pleasurable. So many references popped into my head. Some expected: Frank, Arbus, Winnogrand, Callahan, Levitt, Strand, Evans, Ray Metzker, & Weegee. Others, totally fresh and surprising: Chris Jordan, Roger Ballen, Frederick Sommer. It’s almost like you’ve seen this group of photographs before, while at the same time, you’ve never seen any of the individual images in your life. Does that make sense? As little is known about the artist, it’s hard to say if she was riffing on masters, or just stumbled into this mash-up style. (Which is excellent, through and through.)

The plates are well-produced, with plenty of grayscale range. The pacing is taut, and the juxtapositions fantastic, particularly for their narrative quality. An example: Three kids on the street, one putting a small mattress into a baby carriage, another stout little blonde kid staring straight up, his look saying, “Huh?” That’s followed directly by an image of an African-American young man riding a horse down a city street, under an elevated train. After which we see a cowboy walking down the sidewalk, all duded up. (I’ve got to believe she was directly riffing on the Frank image from “The Americans,” though I suppose we’ll never know.)

Empathy, humor, respect for her subjects, a keen eye for detail, a mastery of texture, it’s all there. The gradation of light on some tough looking old guy’s face illuminates the pores of his skin, while his eyes look just above the camera. He must have cracked a heap of skulls in his day. It’s juxtaposed with a nun, resting up against the corner of a building, lost in thought. I could write about the contrasts all day if I wanted to. But then this would be a dissertation, rather than a book review. (And then no one, anywhere, would ever read it.)

So let’s wrap this up, shall we? This is an excellent book. I love it, and any fan of B&W street photography likely will as well. One oddity is the lack of information about the exact dates and places in which the images were made. (Nobody knows…) But a little mystery isn’t such a bad thing, is it?

Bottom line: Wonderful book, worth the hype

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  1. Yup, great stuff. One can only wish she had received the fame before she passed. I’m looking forward to seeing the show, if and when it comes to town.
    I find it fascinating that she was so under the radar all her life, but also worked for a time as Phil Donahue’s nanny.

  2. What I noticed, looking through Meier’s work is that you really get a sense that she shoots everything at waist-level, making her less conspicuous and it is a wonderful and refreshing perspective.

    We are so lucky to be able to view her work and that her negatives not lost. The irony is not lost that so few people are shooting negatives anymore.

  3. Funny, I thought the print quality of the book severely lacking. Her work is wonderful, and living in NY I got to see 2 shows (Howard Greenberg and Steven Kasher) from the 2 different people who have her work.

    • Hi Stella,

      Thanks for chiming in. I’m looking forward to seeing the prints in Santa Fe, so I’ll let you know. Someone else mentioned on FB earlier that they preferred the plates to the prints, so I’m very curious.

      Hope you’re well.


  4. Meier’s work is fantastic, she offers stimulating angles of view and amazing view of street photography.

  5. Who owns all her work at this point? It seems like they are certainly taking advantage of the popularity. Makes me wonder if she ever had a desire to be “known”. You know?

  6. How much do you think we are seeing real references in her work, and how much are we imposing them by applying a severe edit to her work?

    I love the photographs that I have seen, but given I’ve only seen a minute fraction of the 100k images she took, it’s hard to know exactly what style of photographer she was.

  7. I completely agree with you, Jonathan, that the book and Vivian Maier’s work are wonderful and deserving of the hype.

    I’ve seen both the book and some prints, including some vintage prints that were made during Ms. Maier’s lifetime. (Vivian Maier’s work was all over Los Angeles when I was there a few weeks ago for photo la — most notably at Merry Karnowsky Gallery on LaBrea.) I honestly don’t remember noticing a marked difference between the two — merely that the quality of the work is truly excellent, through and through. In general, though, don’t prints on a wall usually tend look better than reproductions in a book…?

    With regard to references, I actually think it’s entirely possible that Vivian Maier made her body of work ‘in a vacuum’ so to speak (i.e., without much, if any knowledge of her contemporaries or predecessors of the genre). I know I’ve personally taken photographs that I only later discovered had been ‘done before’ by a well-known photographer. I’m thinking specifically of a shadow self-portrait I made in the desert that very much resembles something Lee Friedlander did; however I had no knowledge of Friedlander’s image before I made my own. Are there really any new ideas under the sun? I’d say the answer is both yes and no, as something can be new to you but not new to the world.

    A couple of things that strike me about Vivian Maier’s work are: 1) how close she got to some of her subjects; there is an immediacy and an intimacy that suggests her subjects knew they were being photographed by her, that it wasn’t all made ‘on the sly,’ and 2) it seems like she consistently gravitated towards ‘outsiders’ or marginalized people and ethnic groups — not exclusively, but perhaps moreso than some of her contemporaries.

    Speaking of which, I am dogged by the question of whether or not she would have been noticed and/or successful if she had tried to gain recognition for her work in her lifetime… Because she was a woman. Because she was an oddball, and an enigma. It’s sad to say, but I suspect she very likely would have been passed over and ignored; that it’s _only_ posthumously that she could achieve the kind of acclaim she has received. Thankfully –and lucky for us– someone (John Maloof*) found her work and carefully shepherded it into the light…

    *Not to quibble over details, but I thought John Maloof –the guy who [more or less unwittingly] purchased Vivian Maier’s stash of negatives, prints and undeveloped rolls of film at an estate sale– was a real estate agent, not a “Chicago historian” (?).

  8. […] Jonathan Blaustian writes about Vivian Maier, a photographer I’ve never heard of until now! Where have I been. Ok, I’m officially retiring that joke. So let’s wrap this up, shall we? This is an excellent book. I love it, and any fan of B&W street photography likely will as well. One oddity is the lack of information about the exact dates and places in which the images were made. (Nobody knows…) But a little mystery isn’t such a bad thing, is it? […]

  9. I’ve had the book since December, and I agree that it’s excellent. Brilliant images, and the reproduction quality is outstanding.

    I also share your disappointment that there is very little caption information, which I suppose is to be expected. In my case, I did some detective work and was able to find the exact location of one of the images that was taken in Quebec City, possibly in 1955. I wrote about that on my blog, here:

    I was also able to locate the exact location of another Quebec City shot that’s not in the book but is available on I wrote about that one here:

  10. A couple of notes about things brought up in the comments here…

    Cyntha Wood asked about the title of “Chicago Historian.” Vivian Maier’s photos are currently split between two people; John Maloof, the real estate guy, and Jeffrey Goldstein, an art collector and historian. As far as I know, they each bought bins of negatives from that now-legendary auction, but Maloof was the first to really do anything with the stuff he found. Goldstein sells prints from his collection here:

    Richard Skoonbeg mentioned that her work looks like it was shot at waist level. That’s correct, as much (I would dare say “most”) of her work — at least of that which we’ve seen — was shot with a twin-lens Rolliflex, which is typically shot from waist level.

    Patrick Wilken commented on the fact that we’re only seeing a fraction of her work, and that’s a curated fraction. It’s actually a very good point. However, the same could be said about every photographer who is well known. We never see all of anyone’s work, only edited selections. The difference, however (and I think this is what Wilken is getting at) is that living photographers participate in that editing process, so we’re seeing a selection that they want us to see. Maier’s work is edited posthumously, so we’re seeing only a third-party curator’s view. It will be interesting to see how the curation evolves over time, and if Maloof and Goldstein will allow other people to view the work and curate it differently.

    • Thanks. That was exactly my point; just better expressed!

  11. Favorite image is the one of her reflected in the mirror from a moving van.

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