All photographs copyrighted by Vivian Maier / Maloof Collection
A street photographer whose work and life I hugely admire is that of Vivian Maier. For those of you who haven’t heard her story, she worked and lived as a nanny her entire adult life– and shot street photography on the side for herself. She created incredible black and white and color work through the 1950’s all the way through the late 1990′s. She shot an incredible amount of images– that amount to over 100,000 negatives.
Recently the documentary: “Finding Vivian Maier” on the mystery behind her life and discovery came out. I realized I haven’t written an article on her yet– so I wanted to use the opportunity to do so.
Vivian Maier’s Discovery
One of the incredible things about Vivian Maier (besides her captivating images) is her story.
She was first discovered by John Maloof, who happened to find Vivian’s negatives while at a furniture and antique auction while researching a history book he was writing on Chicago’s north-west side. Vivian’s belongings were being auctioned off from a storage locker (due to non-payments). When he first found her work, he didn’t know what he had.
Maloof acquired more than 100,000 negatives from her, 20-30,000 negatives were still in rolls, undeveloped from the 1960’s-1970’s. Slowly by steadily he started to develop the rolls himself, and started scanning them with an Epson V700-series by himself. Fortunately most of her negatives that were developed in sleeves had the date and location penciled in French.
Maloof tried to Google her, and discovered that she passed away just a few days before in an obituary. This is the death tribute he read of Vivian Maier who passed away at age 83:
“Vivian Maier, proud native of France and Chicago resident for the last 50 years died peacefully on Monday. Second mother to John, Lane and Matthew. A free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all who knew her. Always ready to give her advice, opinion or a helping hand. Movie critic and photographer extraordinaire. A truly special person who will be sorely missed but whose long and wonderful life we all celebrate and will always remember.”
He then put her images and asked for advice on a Flickr Hardcore Street Photography Thread, where he discovered how truly great Vivian’s work was. Since then, Vivian Maier’s work and popularity has exploded hugely– and he is dedicated to promoting her and preserving her legacy and work.
Vivian Maier came to the states from France in the early 1930’s and worked in a sweat shop in New York when she was about 11 or 12. She was described as a Socialist, Feminist, a movie critic, and a tell-it-like-it-is type of person. She picked up her English by watching films, and also wore a men’s jacket, men’s shoes and a large hat most of the time. She took photos everywhere she went, without showing them to anybody.
Maier first discovered photography around 1949, while still in France. Her first camera was a Kodak Brownie box camera, which is an amateur camera with only one shutter speed, no focus control, and no aperture dial.
In 1951, Maier went to New York and joined a family in Southampton as a nanny.
In 1952, Vivian Maier purchased a Rolleiflex camera and started to become more prolific with her photography. She stayed with her original New York family until 1956, when she moved to the North Shore suburbs of Chicago. In Chicago, she got employed by the Gensburgs family, who employed Vivian as a nanny for 3 boys. They soon became Vivian’s closest family for the rest of her life.
In 1956, Vivian Maier Maier moved to Chicago, where she built a darkroom in her private bathroom. This allowed her to develop and print her own black and white film. In the early 1970’s once the children she was nannying grew up, she had to abandon her home in Chicago. This forced her to stop developing her own film. As she jumped from new family to new family, her rolls of undeveloped, unprinted work began to collect.
In the 1970’s Vivian started to shoot more color street photography, using mostly Kodak Ektachrome 35mm film. Some of the cameras she used was a Leica IIIc, and various German SLR cameras. Her color work was much more abstract than her earlier black and white street photography. She started to photograph less people, and focused more on “found objects”, newspapers, and graffiti.
In the 1980’s Vivian started to have financial instabilities. This caused her processing to be put on hold, and her color Ektachrome rolls began to pile up.
Between the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, Vivian had to put down her camera and keep her belongings in storage while she tried to stay afloat financially. She was temporarily homeless, until she was given a small studio apartment which the family of the kids she took care of in Chicago (the Gensburgs) helped pay for. Her photographs in storage then were sold off in an auction due to non-payment of rent in 2007. The negatives were auctioned off by the storage company, where John Maloof discovered her work.
In 2008, Vivian fell on a patch of ice and hit her head in downtown Chicago. Although she was expected to make a full recovery, her health began to deteriorate, forcing Vivian into a nursing home. She passed away a short time later in April of 2009.
Vivian Maier’s first camera was a Kodak Brownie box camera. 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.
During her life Vivian Maier shot mostly Kodak Tri-X and Ektachrome film.
Vivian Maier’s Working Style
One thing I am particularly interested in is Vivian Maier’s working style. Based on her contact sheets (with her black and white Rolleiflex work), you can see that she was quite conservative. Most of the photos she took were just one shot of a scene. Sometimes when she thought the scene was really interesting, she would work the scenes and shoot up to 8 shots (more than half the roll of 12 shots in a medium-format film).
Shooting with her Rolleiflex, many of her shots shows she was unnoticed by her subjects. However some of the photos, you can see that her subjects look at her curiously (showing that her subjects at least had some idea she was photographing them).
Some of the photos she took also looks like they were photographed with consent by her subjects. She might have briefly chatted with her subjects before taking their shot– as some of her subjects simply smile and look straight at Vivian.
She also zone-focused while shooting (pre-focusing her lens to a certain distance and shooting with a relatively small aperture). She photographed people who were stationary– and also people who she found interesting as they walked by her.
In terms of her working distance, Vivian shot at different distances. Some of her photos are intimate portraits shot at a close distance (less than a meter away). She wasn’t shy to get close to her subjects to fill the frame. Other photos are shot more at a distance to show more of the environment and of an interesting scene.
Regarding subject matter, Vivian Maier photographed street scenes, portraits of people, interesting architecture, self-portraits, as well as random objects in the streets.
Most of Vivian’s work was shot in New York and Chicago, but she also did take some photos while traveling in India and Egypt.
Her color work differs much from her black and white work. First of all, her color work looks more like the classic “street photography” you would see by the likes of Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz. It is much more spontaneous and has a specific focus on colorful scenes. She also shot most of her color work on 35mm, which creates more dynamic framing in her shots. Most of her black and white work was on her Rolleiflex, which wasn’t as quick and nimble as her Leica and 35mm SLR cameras.
Lessons Vivian Maier Has Taught Me in Street Photography
Below are some lessons Vivian Maier has taught me about street photography:
1. Shoot for yourself
One of the most important lessons I’ve personally learned from Vivian Maier is the importance of shooting for yourself. Maier never really showed her work to anybody else while she was still alive and shooting. It wasn’t until John Maloof discovered her work in a storage auction did her work reach a huge audience.
Nobody still really knows her motivations in her street photography because she never really talked to anybody about her work. Not only that, but she never left behind any written records regarding her motivations in street photography.
Regardless, it is clear that she shot street photography to satisfy something inside herself. She shot prolifically- at every chance that she got. Even though she did work full-time as a nanny, she used her time in-between chores and on the weekends to create her breathtaking images.
Sometimes we forget the most important person to impress with our photography is ourselves. With the proliferation of social media, we always feel the need to impress others. We want to get tons of followers, likes, favorites and admiration from others.
If Vivian Maier started shooting street photography nowadays, she would have probably stayed off social media. She would have shot purely to satisfy herself– and not worry or care what others thought of her work.
I think the beauty of street photography is sharing it with others. Even with Vivian Maier– I think it would have been a shame if nobody ever discovered her work. Her images inspire, in their simplicity and beauty of everyday life.
While it is admirable to create images to inspire other people– don’t forget that you want to impress and satisfy yourself. First shoot for yourself, and if others happen to enjoy your work– that is an extra plus.
2. Be prolific
Vivian Maier left behind 100,000+ negatives, much of which was undeveloped. When John Maloof first discovered her work, about 20-30,000 negatives were still in rolls, undeveloped from the 1960’s-1970’s.
Why did she have so much undeveloped work? Part of the reason was the fact that she was always moving and didn’t have much stability. Not only that, but she had financial issues her entire life– and she passed away nearly penniless.
I also think a part of the reason is the fact that her primary goal was to just go out and document the world. She might have thought that she could just do all the shooting while she was healthy, and could always end up developing and printing her work later.
Maier photographed constantly, over 50 years throughout mostly Chicago and New York. Her style changed and evolved over time, photographing street scenes in black and white, then working in color with more abstract scenes.
Letting her undeveloped work pile up is very similar to that of Garry Winogrand, who was also a prolific shooter. He was too busy shooting, that he didn’t have enough time or energy to even develop his rolls.
One of the best ways to become a great photographer is to simply take a lot of photos. The more photos you take, the more you improve your eye and skills. And the more photos you shoot in the street, the more likely you are to strike gold and capture phenomenal images.
Malcom Gladwell wrote in his book: “Outliers” that most experts had to dedicate at least 10,000 hours to their craft to master it. I think in photography the same idea applies. To become a truly great photographer, we need to spend a lot of time out shooting and creating images. The more time we spend photographing, the more hours we put towards those 10,000 hours to become a master.
Even though it is hard to make time to shoot in our everyday lives– try to find time in-between your busy schedule. Always carry your camera with you, and photograph whenever you have a small break. Photograph in the morning before you go to work. Photograph on the subway or bus. Photograph during your lunch break. Photograph after work, on the way home. Photograph on the weekends. Photograph on the way to the store. Every opportunity is a photographic opportunity– and let the images and hours of work pile up.
3. Embrace your day job
Vivian Maier had a day job. She was a nanny. She didn’t work as a full-time photographer. She was simply a photography amateur and hobbyist. She didn’t photograph to make money. She photographed to please herself, and capture everyday life.
When I used to have a day job, I used to always tell myself: “Man, if I didn’t have this stupid day job
I would have so much more time to photograph. I wish I was a full-time photographer, so I could always be taking photographs.”
Funny enough, soon after when I got laid off and did start pursuing my street photography full-time, I found out that I didn’t have that much more time to photograph. Instead, I found myself busy writing articles for the blog, answering emails, planning workshops, putting together business proposals, working on finances, and other tasks on the computer. Many of my friends who are full-time photographers do commercial and wedding work– and don’t even have the energy to photograph for fun after their work-days are over.
I think there is a huge benefit of having a day job. A day job gives you the financial stability to shoot street photography for fun– on the side, on your own terms. If you shot street photography for a living, the images you created had to please your clients. You wouldn’t be just shooting for yourself.
So regardless if you have a day job, you can still create great images. Some of the best street photographers I know are employed full-time and even have families. But they always carve our free time to shoot street photography either during their lunch breaks or on weekends. Plus having a day job gives them the financial stability to afford photography books, film, cameras, workshops, and money to travel.
If you have a day job, don’t be fooled that by becoming a full-time photographer will give you more free time to shoot. You can still make incredible street photography with a day job (like Vivian Maier).
4. Photograph yourself
I love Vivian Maier’s self-portraits. They are simple, seductive, humorous, and witty. She was quite creative in photographing herself– and shot herself her entire life. She photographed her shadow, reflection through water, reflection in mirrors, and incorporated many different compositional elements in doing so.
Sometimes it is hard for us to find subjects to shoot on the street. But regardless– we always have ourselves to photograph.
So photograph your own shadow, your own reflections, your own image. Superimpose yourself on your subjects, photograph mirrors, windows– and push your creativity. Look at Vivian Maier’s self-portraits for inspiration (also check out Lee Friedlander’s self-portraits) and have fun.
5. Being “discovered” involves a lot of luck
When I started shooting street photography, I wanted to become “discovered” to have my work recognized and appreciated. I wanted to be in famous galleries, exhibitions, and museums. I wanted to be a photography household name.
But what I discovered through Vivian Maier is that being “discovered” is mostly luck. If Vivian Maier work didn’t happen to found by John Maloof, her work would’ve disappeared into obscurity. Even though she was incredibly talented, nobody would ever know her work.
Even for myself– the popularity of this blog is a lot of luck. Granted that I have worked hard on the blog for the last 3 years– but I was lucky in terms of the time I was born (having the internet), getting featured on other popular photography blogs, as well as building the right connections.
You can be the most talented photographer in the world and never receive recognition for it. To gain recognition does involve a lot of luck, knowing the right people, and being in the right space at the right time.
So don’t let your popularity dictate your self-worth in photography. There are tons of incredibly talented photographers out there who still haven’t been “discovered” because they don’t know how to market their work via the internet to the masses. I personally am not the best street photographer out there– but the only reason why I’m well-known is through this blog, and that I know how to effectively utilize social media.
Photograph for yourself, and if you happen to become “discovered” appreciate it. If you never do, don’t worry. Just keep shooting for yourself.
Vivian Maier has taught me the importance of shooting for myself, and not worrying so much about what others think about me and my work. I think she is a great reminder to all of us– that the most people to impress with our work is ourselves.
Vivian Maier, street photographer and nanny
Finding Vivian Maier – Official Movie Trailer
You can find information regarding the “Finding Vivian Maier” film here.
The 8mm Films of Vivian Maier
These observational clips offer a rare glimpse into the late street photographer’s largely unseen experimentation with film. Read the full feature on NOWNESS here.
Photographers Similar to Vivian Maier
Vivian Maier owned many photography books, and certainly she was inspired and knew other photographers. It isn’t certainly exactly which photographers inspired her
If you like the street photography of Vivian Maier, I recommend the following photographers:
- Robert Doisneau (also photographed a lot of children, and his work is fun and whimsical)
- Lee Friedlander (check out his self-portraits, which remind me a lot of Vivian’s work)
- Diane Arbus (also did a lot of street portraits with a Rolleiflex)
- Helen Levitt (also shot a lot of street scenes in New York, lots of kids too)
If you like the work of Vivian Maier, check out some of her books below:
I recommend this book as a good introduction to Vivian Maier’s work. Very affordable (around $23 USD) and great print quality and selection of images from her black and white work.
This book is a different collection of her work from the prior book, with more information about Vivian’s background and biography. This book is currently going for around $38.
If you are a fan of Vivian Maier’s self portraits, this book is for you. Sells for ~$33 USD.
A new book on Vivian Maier you can pre-order for ~$54. It will be released October 14, 2014. Around 288 pages long– it should be comprehensive and a great resource to have.
- Official Vivian Maier Website
- Vivian Maier [Wikipedia]
- About Vivian Maier
- Vivian Maier Hardcore Street Photography Thread
- The Best Street Photographer You’ve Never Heard Of [Mother Jones]
- The Life and Work of Street Photographer Vivian Maier
How has Vivian Maier inspired you in street photography? Share your thoughts in the comments below!