Vivian Maier: Street Photographer

Photographs by Vivian Maier

Edited by John Maloof

Published by powerHouse Books, 2011

Reviewed by Cara Hine

Vivian Maier was an unknown. Until John Maloof discovered boxes of her negatives at an auction house in Chicago in 2007. Her death, only two years later, and the intense secrecy under which she worked for almost five decades, casts an incredibly obscure undertone throughout the photographs published in Vivian Maier: Street Photographer. Working as a professional nanny, Vivian kept a cloak on her photographic activities for decades. She lost possession of her negatives when failure to make payments on her storage locker lead to the contents being sold off. This book is a collection of some of Vivian’s discovered work; black and white portraits of American city streets.

There is a poignant paragraph in Geoff Dyer’s introductory piece that draws on the circumstances under which Vivian’s massive body of work was discovered, and the ‘unknowable potential of all human beings.’[1] That Vivian led a secret life as a street photographer opens the possibility to view the subjects in her work as similarly complex, secretive beings. Her photographs are deeply humanistic, highlighting the individual and attempting to enter a moment of their lives. The secret space between two child friends, anxious hands on a crowded street curb, scattered bodies in mid-motion and the faces that look up at the lens. Vivian’s photographs draw our attention to strangers in the street and open a kind of dialogue whilst simultaneously underlining their anonymity. There are pages and pages of photographs in this book where Vivian’s subjects are aware of having their picture taken. They return Vivian’s gaze. This is haunting, as with any instance where death and photography interlock, and emphasises the relationship between audience and photographer. The death of the artist imbues looking at Maier’s photographs with a sense of following footsteps: a double play where we can simply look at the subjects in the work or extend our view to look at the subjects looking back at the unknown, furtive photographer. This intimacy is heightened by the idea that these photographs have been kept hidden for so long and were previously unseen. The mystery surrounding Vivian’s photographic practice seems to encourage this objective when flipping through book, to find the artist in the images. Like the image that adorns the cover of this book, Vivian took photographs of herself in the reflections of street windows and mirrors. These pictures merge self-portraiture and the genre of street photography with ample success and yet these are literal examples of Vivian reflected in her work. The portraits of city strangers, particularly the ones who notice Vivian at work with her camera, evoke a kind of game where it becomes about who the subjects are looking at. Through these stark looks, we try to gauge the photographic method and approach of the artist, her journey toward the moment captured, and to learn something of the woman who had previously remained anonymous.

Maloof, the guardian or ‘caretaker’ of Vivian’s art, plays a key role in framing the ways these photographs are filtered out to the public. Vivian’s privacy surrounding her art practice and her reluctance to even title her photographs results in a kind of disconnect in terms of ‘art world formalities.’ These features do threaten to set up a distance between the art and the artist, and what is interesting about this book is that it stands as a direct product of the obscure relationship formed by Maloof, as the ‘caretaker’, with the deceased artist’s work. The limited text and commentary is a welcome aspect as Vivian’s photographs are saved from being overly bound and burdened by external context. I would argue that this allows audiences of her work greater entry into the artist’s vision.

 The selection of photographs is significant to consider with this idea of ‘caretaker’ and Maloof framing how we appreciate Vivian as an artist. What would have been truly fascinating is if the book had published some of the printed contact sheets from these mysteriously ‘found’ negatives. As there is a definite sense of restriction to the book that in Dyer’s forward we are told that Vivian ‘took over 100,000 photographs worldwide’ and yet, where are they? This prolific nature of Vivian’s practice is not communicated in Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, where emphasis has instead been given to a select few, marvellous photographs that portray the dynamism of what appears to be American city streets, (as the lack of context means a guessing game). I have an incredible envy for Maloof, his unbelievably fortunate discovery and the way this book is austerely selective, choosing to unveil a glimpse of Vivian’s work in the context of the 100, 000 discovered photographs. Some of Vivian’s negatives are yet to be developed. This book provides a sound introduction to a photographer who almost went undiscovered.


[1] ‘Geoff Dyer on Vivian Maier’, p.8


CARA HINE is completing a Bachelor of Art (Art History & Curatorship) at the Australian National University. She previously worked as an intern at the National Gallery of Australia during the Masterpieces from Paris exhibition in 2009. Cara also holds an Advanced Diploma in Journalism.