January 9, 2014

Open Eyes: Reminders from Photographer Vivian Maier’s Work


Vivian Maier’s Rolleiflex Camera photographed by ChiILLeica under a Creative Commons License

Before digital cameras, before Web-based picture hubs like Flickr and Instagram, photographer Vivian Maier (1926–2009) roamed her surroundings with her manual camera, searching for compositions to photograph. For nearly 50 years, she produced thousands of photographs related to streetscapes and the urban environment. New York City was her birthplace. Chicago was her photographic playground.

I saw the exhibition Vivian Maier’s Chicago (on view through summer 2014) at the Chicago History Museum. It shows a tremendous amount of Maier’s photographic work, over decades. Though tiny in scope, in comparison to the total amount of work she amassed over a lifetime, the show was a satisfying slice of Maier’s photographic portfolio. It compelled me to reflect on these aspects:

A tool can be a lasting imprint
Maier was given a camera in her early years. It became her companion, similar to a musician’s relationship with a chosen instrument. A tool can inspire a new outlet and a potentially consistent path for creativity, where one’s expression flows through it. The camera was Maier’s means to express her curiosity.

Maier was pulled by the magnetic field of her tools, for she used more than one type of camera. According to the Maloof Collection, of John Maloof who acquired a vast archive of Maier’s film negatives in 2007 and was the earliest to discover her significant contribution to photography:
“Vivian Maier’s first camera was a modest Kodak Brownie box camera with one shutter speed, no aperture and focus control. In 1952 she purchased her first Rolleiflex camera. Over the course of her career she used Rolleiflex 3.5T, Rolleiflex 3.5F, Rolleiflex 2.8C, Rolleiflex Automat and others. She later also used a Leica IIIc, an Ihagee Exakta, a Zeiss Contarex and various other SLR cameras.”
If Maier wasn’t given a camera, she may have never discovered her talent for photograph, and her manifesting a half century of American urban life on film would not exist.

Walking is generous in perspective
Maier is often described as a street photographer. She is a neighborhood photographer. Vivian Maier’s Chicago shows the neighborly pace, block by block, time to time, that was evident in what was developed from Maier’s film rolls. Many of these photographs were done as she walked the streets. It contributes to images that feel grounded. Getting out on foot was Maier’s blessing for her day and for her camera. Naturalist Henry David Thoreau said, “We must walk consciously only partway toward our goal and then leap in the dark to our success.” Maier’s life can be distilled to this cycle: From walk to darkroom.

A body of work takes work
It’s estimated that Maier took more than 100,000 photographs during her lifetime. I can’t help but wonder how this number would have been affected if Maier adopted a digital camera as a part of her toolkit, though I appreciate the loyalty she invested in her conventional camera.

The phrase “body of work” infers a sense of scale, but more poetically, a sense of time. Maier spent her attention with her tool of choice toward her craft of choice. It wouldn’t be surprising if her definition of photography was the act of photographing.

A city is an opportunity for open eyes
Maier’s work made me recall a recorded talk I heard at the CreativeMornings/Berlin chapter by Jessica Jungbauer, who founded online journal Best wishes from Berlin. She expressed her fondness for the city and the life it can positively empower:
“Inspiration lies on the street right in front of you. …By paying attention and wandering in the streets with open eyes, one gets ideas and gets inspired by the city.”
With each city she visited, Maier entered its intricacy. Exploring a city was her aesthetic insistence. She was an astronaut within the artificial world of a city. Maier’s photography reinforces the discipline of not taking a place, whether or not it has the stature of a city, for granted—to seize and preserve a sense of place from who and what is presented in view and in context.

Diligence is silent
As aspects of her life are being mined and assembled, Maier is portrayed as a quiet photographer. Keeping silent in studying herself and her surroundings through her lens.

Hello, Camera. Welcome, World!

Maier’s work stands in high contrast to the current practices of photography. In his New Yorker article Goodbye, Cameras(1) traveler and author Craig Mod declared the reality of “networked lenses” that go beyond the singular function of a traditional-film camera. Granted that inventions such as the Web and camera-equipped mobile phones were absent during Maier’s generation, her photographic tools and workflow also reflect the sign of the times she proactively documented.

In his article, Mod celebrated the data-collecting and interactive benefits of current digital photography mutually supported by an ever-advancing network platform. Today’s photograph escapes the flatland of its composition and is “auto-magically” attached to metrics and a community of viewership and critique. Mod bids farewell to the antiquated language and nature of the “camera” and welcomes its evolution as “networked lenses.” In closing, Mod concludes that “whatever can’t be networked…becomes less important.”

In contrast, Maier’s photographs are solitary moments about the means and infrastructure of the time. They reached the ceiling of being manually developed, displayed, and viewed. This is the ceiling that Mod is eager to see shattered. Maier’s photographic tools and work were not pre-equipped to be instantly “captured, edited, collated, shared, and responded to” (to echo a string of actions from Mod’s New Yorker piece).

Maier’s photographs were not “networked.” They were not “tethered.” But these current capabilities don’t negate the importance of Maier’s sensibilities and resulting output. The art of photography that Maier practiced in order to see the art of her surroundings was important to her. In her time, it was just Maier and her camera. A sufficient relationship. Independent. Patient. Untethered. These are enduring qualities that make her images enriching and vitally important. Maier greeted her camera, grasped her surroundings, and vigorously took pictures—with a non-networked lens.


(1) Craig Mod’s article Goodbye, Cameras was discovered via Shawn Blanc.

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Documentary film Finding Vivian Maier, produced and directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, is scheduled for theatrical release during March 2014.