The Greats: Vivian Maier

Its amazing to learn more about a person who has achieved incredible things.  Vivian Maier is, I think, quite possibly the best street portraitist who ever lived.  Better than Bresson you ask?  Undoubtedly!  Bresson was a fantastic street photographer who was able to find incredible symmetries.  But he is not known for his portraits.  Vivian made incredible street portraits, and I would put her against the best.

That said, I am not so interested in talking about why her work is of superior quality, you can be the judge of that.  What I am interested in here is the how.  She is the greatest street portraitist for a reason and I think some of the below characteristics came together to form the perfect storm of a woman primed to accomplish such feats.

She’s a foreigner.  She was a transplant from the southern French countryside with no family.  This otherness enabled objectivity, perspective and intrigue.  The eye of the traveler is one that ever wanders.

She’s not intimidating.  You need to be discreet to shoot in the street.  In a street photography workshop I attended, the best shooter of them all was a 4 foot tall Asian girl.  Just think of who would get angry at her for taking their photo?  People were probably delighted!  When I (a six foot tall caucasian) shoot people and am caught, I just look like a jerk.

She focused on using only one camera – the Rolleiflex with an 80mm lens.  Imagine… using the same camera and lens for 40 years.  Studio photographers can switch equipment with the coming and going of the tides.  Switching between this equipment has minimal impact on them.  It’s not about the tools.  Street photographers require the camera to be an appendage.  A tool that is a living, unconscious extension of themselves.  40-50 years with one camera and one lens brought this unconscious relationship to exist.  Her mind’s eye merged with the viewfinders.  She probably saw things as a 6×6 square format.

She was a tough cookie, who was anything but social.  Personal relationships probably got in the way of her photography.  But what liberation!  To not have to worry about other’s incisive opinions and  influences.  Her anti-social behavior gave her the ability to be an individual in a true sense.  Also, being in solitude allows one to focus.  From my own personal experience, I have tried going out with friends and even strangers to shoot on the street.  But it doesn’t work.  I am distracted from my goal.  To be a good street photographer, you need to be alone on the street.

She practiced her solitude daily and began to cherish it.  She felt the need to take photos for herself.   This was an intensely private joy she experienced.  In the immortal words of Joel Meyerowitz “you can make prints out of this and share this… but at a certain point if you’ve done it long enough… you don’t really have to.  It’s for you.  It’s just for you.”  She felt the need to take photos for herself.  The need for sharing simply wasn’t there.

And while she lacked family in the typical sense of the term, the photos made her family.  Vivian surrounded herself with intimate moments with strangers.  She got close and saw people for who they were; humans.  What is family but deep emotional connection with others?  This humanity is evident throughout her portraiture.  Those strangers caught in a strange land doing strange work, they were her brothers and sisters.

Would she have wanted everyone to know who she was and her history (forensic history at that!)?  An emphatic no.  But her life and work shows us the special sauce required to make a great street photographer.

Take heed my friends.

-J

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3 thoughts on “The Greats: Vivian Maier

  1. She never used one camera, she had several and a Rolleiflex has a 75mm or 80mm lens not a 40mm. Apart from these inaccuracies, I agree with you.

    1. Changed the “only” to “focused on one camera” :-).

      The 40mm mention is really in terms of a 35mm camera (which I know the 6×6 rolleiflex is not). I just think people use 35mm focal lengths more often and more casually which is why I used it.

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