Vivian Maier – street photographer

by Chris Bertram on January 8, 2011

I’m almost reluctant to add to the hype, but the story is so unusual, and the pictures so good, that I think I’ll overcome that. In brief, then: Chicago is about to see the first exhibition of the photography of Vivian Maier, a recently-deceased, partly-French, nanny who seems to have neither sought nor received any exposure or recognition in her lifetime. Thousands of negatives were then bought by a real-estate agent at a flea market. Astonished at what he found, he’s now promoting her work, making a documentary film, putting a book together and so on. Well, I know, it all sounds too good to be true. But the pictures (at least the ones we’ve seen) are superb. I have some qualms about the ethics of developing unprocessed rolls of a photographer’s work. (Famously, Garry Winogrand had tons of these.) This is for the simple reason that the photographer may just have know that that roll contained crap. Unprinted negatives get you a bit closer to the finished article, but there too, there’s the matter of editing, selection, etc. So the world will never see the work the Maier would have chosen to represent herself, if she’d have wanted exhibiting at all. But, still, the pictures are wonderful.

Links: “New York Times”: (great slideshow – view it full screen); Blog post at “The Operable Window”: (with link to TV news item); Chicago “exhibition”: details; John Maloof’s “site”: (he’s the real-estate agent); “details of the documentary film”: (and scroll down for many more links).



Harry 01.08.11 at 1:34 pm

Even a dolt like me can see these are wonderful. Thanks Chris.


Bloix 01.08.11 at 3:13 pm

The pictures are stunning. After the first few the hair on my arms began to rise and by the end the tears were gathering in my eyes. Thank you for introducing us to a great artist.


jeer9 01.08.11 at 5:15 pm



Jonathan Mayhew 01.08.11 at 5:32 pm

A great sense of visual wit.


Bill Benzon 01.08.11 at 8:12 pm

Wonderful photos, with power and elegance.


Bread and Roses 01.08.11 at 9:34 pm

I’ve had John Maloof’s blog in my RSS feeder for maybe a year now and it is always a delight to see the next picture pop up.


jim 01.09.11 at 1:17 am

the world will never see the work the [sic] Maier would have chosen to represent herself, if she’d have wanted exhibiting at all

This is the crux, I think. Maier didn’t think of exhibiting. She doesn’t seem to have thought of even sharing. It was enough to simply take the picture. Having taken it, it was no longer necessary even to develop the film, let alone print the negative or, god forbid, exhibit the print.

Prior to digitalization, the art involved in photography was, arguably, picking the moment to record. That’s what Maier did.


jonesing 01.09.11 at 4:00 am

Yeah thanks Chris, this work deserves to be better known.

What immediately comes across is that Maier has a wonderful sense of space. I’m a big fan of Diane Arbus and was surprised by the spooky similarity in a few instances. One photograph with the title Canada shows two… I would assume young brothers, possibly twins. The juxtaposition of seeming innocence with something bordering on menacing is eerily reminiscent of Arbus’ work.

There is a ‘silence’ also in Maier’s photographs that makes you understand that she has captured more than an incidental moment… craft and intelligence inform every photograph.

Thank you so much for this rare treat.


john c. halasz 01.09.11 at 6:25 am

Well, there might be some sort of feminist diatribe buried in there somewhere. But I get a sense of people caught up, perhaps unawares, in the machinery of civilization. On the other hand, I get a sense that she views us all as somebody else’s children. Indeed, we are all somebody else’s children. God is definitely not a nanny.


Ingrid 01.09.11 at 11:44 am

I hadn’t heard of ‘the hype’ and the pictures are fascinating and amazing, so thanks for sharing!


Eszter Hargittai 01.09.11 at 12:57 pm

Oooh, fascinating! I’ll have to check out the exhibition when I’m downtown this week. Thanks for the heads up!


Bloix 01.09.11 at 4:02 pm

Any photographer will take dozens or even hundreds of shots for every print he or she chooses to show. The process of selection is as important an artistic decision as the process of taking the picture.

But this photographer chose not to make the decision to select, and that creates a real conundrum – who will make the selection, who will determine what the canon of pictures will be, and how can that task be done? Chris says that some images are “crap” while others, implicitly, are good, but there’s no objective measure of good and bad in photography, and the received wisdom changes markedly over time.

The people who are making the selections now are not artists and they will unavoidably be influenced by what they know. They will select pictures that look like good photographs to them, not ones that might have looked good to Maier, if she’d chosen to look at them. And what looks good to the people making the choices will be determined by their understanding of photography, which at best will likely be a curator’s understanding, not an artist’s understanding. So it may be that what they’ve chosen to show are pictures that speak in a language developed by others. There are pictures here that look like they could have been taken by Frank, by Arbus, by Strand, by Winogrand, even by Weegee.

And they are without doubt truly great pictures. But there may never be an artistic vision that can be identified as Maier’s, because she chose not to develop – both literally and figuratively – any such vision.

Perhaps I’m wrong about this. Perhaps a sensitive eye, reviewing tens of thousands of negatives, will be able to discern and produce a unique and powerful body of work. It would be the life’s work of a talented person, who would become Maier’s collaborator and an equal contributor with her to the power of her art.


david 01.09.11 at 5:20 pm

garry winogrand indeed left thousands of rolls of unprocessed, unedited film behind when he died. he accumulated such a mass of exposed film for at least two reasons: 1) he shot a lot of film; and 2) he wanted time to pass between shooting and editing, because, as he explained in an interview with bill moyers, he wanted to see his film free of the influence of the feelings he felt while shooting. he did not leave film unprocessed because he thought or feared it might contain crap. he knew that most of it would be crap, but he also knew there would be great pictures among the crap—that was the nature of his mode of photography. of course, we have no reason to believe that the choices made MOMA curatorial team would have been winogrand’s. nor can we know which pictures vivian maier would have chosen to show us had she made choices. but isn’t it better to have the opportunity of asking, when contemplating a wonderful picture by winogrand or maier, would the artist have chosen this particular frame or another? would he or she have printed it like this? why do we exhibit paintings—like some by degas, for example—known to be regarded as unfinished by the artist? why do we listen to unfinished symphonies finished by someone other than the originating composer? why do we read notebooks? bloix is quite correct: we will never quite grasp maier’s vision as such, because she didn’t articulate it as such. what we see will always result be a collaboration.


tomslee 01.09.11 at 7:00 pm

Well, there might be some sort of feminist diatribe buried in there somewhere.

If a diatribe is buried, it’s not a diatribe.


john c. halasz 01.10.11 at 7:37 am


That might be right, on the level of the connotation of the word: maybe not the best word choice. But, if on the level of denotation, the suggestion is that they can be nothing suppressed or latent, on some sort of rationalistic-intentionalistic account, then it’s askew. At any rate, the auratic vibe I got from the photos in evidence is that she “captures” some slight oddity in her “subjects”, with a tad of impetinence, leaving a sense of cool, distant compassion. That she had no apparent desire for “publication”, inspite of what must have been a sense of her talent, a dedication to her avocation, that, putatively, she preferred to maintain her anonymity, her indifference to any recognition, might be because it was tautological to the life she actually lived, a kind of self-solidarity, as it were. (obviously, that’s a bit projective and speculative; it’s not a pure formalist reading).

I’ve never been a photographer, but I find the suggestion that unselected or undeveloped photos are a violation of “artistic intention” somewhat odd. As if the institution of an art-form, such as it is, were solely a matter of the intentions of its genius-creators, and not of its reception. I’d imagine that every such photographer,- (it might be different with the contrived studio case),- knows that most shots on a role are “crap”. But the selective “eye” is already engaged in the attempt, rather like a jazz musician must have some idea of the notes and chords in a chorus, even as there are better and worse performances. The objection to the involuntary, mediating role of reception is a bit like claiming that poems or other literary works should never be subjected to an editor, (as, in some famous case, the editing was crucial to the “realization” of the work). Granted, the woman is dead now and didn’t apparently care. But it doesn’t follow that “we” should exercise a similar discretion, and withhold any recognition or care.


jim 01.10.11 at 6:53 pm

A tangential point: I’m seeing some of these images turn up all over the net (particularly the one of the woman with the white fur stole walking to a fifties car in the moonlight). Does anyone know the copyright status? The original flickr discussion raised the question, only to dismiss it.


Anderson 01.11.11 at 11:55 am

I have some qualms about the ethics of developing unprocessed rolls of a photographer’s work.

Do you have qualms about publishing work that Kafka left unpublished at his death? Or are these photography-specific qualms?


Eszter Hargittai 01.12.11 at 12:21 pm

Thanks again for this pointer. I went to see the exhibition yesterday and it was a delight. There were several self-portraits (or so I’m assuming) in a row that I found very intriguing especially in light of how little we seem to know about the artist.


Torquil MacNeil 01.12.11 at 2:20 pm

“Do you have qualms about publishing work that Kafka left unpublished at his death? ”

You should do since he was very explicit that it should not be published.


GeoX 01.13.11 at 3:24 am

So we should all feel bad that The Trial and The Castle and so on were published rather than burned? No, sorry; I can’t say I DO have any qualms about that. Mebbe I’m some sort of terrible monster.

Comments on this entry are closed.