I have a fairly catholic taste in photography, and have collected books that cover many genres. In the past, I've always found it difficult to go into a bookshop with a good photographic section and not come out with a purchase. I hope it’s not a case of me getting old and set in my ways, but in recent years the number of books that have really appealed to me seem to be getting a lot thinner on the ground. There seems to be a lot of really dour, dull books out there by contemporary photographers, and a large number of re-hashed, re-assembled compilations of the very famous names, who are already well enough represented in my library. And so recently I found myself in the bookshop of the Tate Modern, looking for new titles to excite me. The only book, by some distance, was the really quite excellent Vivian Maier Street Photographer.
|Vivian Maier Street Photographer by John Maloof|
For those of you who don't know the story, Vivian Maier spent most of her adult lifetime working as a nanny in New York and Chicago. She lived alone, never married, but she had one passion, and that was taking photographs. It would seem that she was not one for putting herself or her work forward, and her pictures were never seen outside of her meagre home. Her work was not even forgotten, it was simply unknown, and would have remained that way if a Chicago historian, John Maloof had not purchased a major part of her archive, now around 100,000 negatives, from a storage container sale. Fortunately, Maloof realised that he had stumbled across something extraordinary and in the four years since the discovery has responded to circumstances and become the curator of the Vivian Maier archive.
Vivian Maier Street Photographer is Maloof's first book to emerge from the legacy of pictures, and no doubt more will come as the archive is explored and understood. The images presented are wonderful. Shot square format on her Rolleiflex, she has captured street scenes of New York and Chicago, beautifully composed, timed and exposed. It is interesting how a loner or maverick, as Maier apparently was, felt comfortable in taking pictures of people at close quarters. The pictures speak of a curiosity and enthusiasm of life.
|Jan 26, 1955, Uptown West, New York, NY by Vivian Maier|
Her work invites comparisons: pictures of down and outs hint of the work to come from Diane Arbus, some street place shots remind one of Walker Evans, self-portraits seem to herald Lee Freidlander’s later images. For me, these comparisons ask some awkward questions about one’s own involvement and relationship with art. Maier’s pictures were effectively unseen before Maloof’s discovery. They had no influence on any other photographer and did not become milestones in the development of the medium. She was undoubtedly a skilled photographer and had some style of her own, her work as good as many of her contemporaries, but she does not really fit into any history of photography. She may yet influence later generations, but she had no impact on her contemporaries. This is where many artists find themselves, unable or unwilling to get the publicity to bring their work to a large audience. Given different circumstances, it could have been Vivian Maier who was held up as a leading artist in post-war American photography.
The book is well designed, and pictures are printed very nicely in a warm black that suits the images well, and the paper is an opaque clean white with a good weight and sheen. At 128 pages long it is a good read and a book that I keep returning to. I have seen some rather critical comments about the print quality and book design on the web. Let me assure you that book design is very good, and the printing is excellent too. I have no complaints at all with my copy, which is a fourth printing.
One thing the book does lack is a good history of Vivian Maier, but this is an understandable omission as it is still early days in piecing together an accurate record of Maier’s life. A current history can be found at the Vivian Maier website, and I recommend a visit. I think this book will appeal to many photographers, and John Maloof should be applauded for the excellent job he has done in bringing Maier’s images to the public’s attention.
Vivian Maier Street Photographer is published by Powerhouse Books.