Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits

Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier


Having briefly looked at the bizarre story of how Vivian Maier’s work became public (here) I want to look specifically at the published collection of her self portraits as part of my research into assignment 3.

There are three important factors to be taken into account when looking at Vivian Maier: Self Portraits (1), points that are summarised in a short film by Ted Forbes (2). Firstly Maier did not select this collection so we cannot know whether she valued this work but we can see that she took self portraits and especially reflective self portraits over a long period of time so it was clearly a style that intrigued her. Secondly, Maier did not supervise the printing of these negatives and there is so little of her work that was printed under her supervision and available for inspection that we have nothing with which to compare these prints so we cannot judge whether these prints are the end point of her vision. Lastly, and also my own conclusion in my previous essay on Maier, her work is being curated by people who are unqualified in both the sense that they are not curators and that they are not known to have any previous credentials as art historians or even students.

These factors make any appraisal of her work full of pit-falls. For example I find the prints are generally rather bland and safe but this would be a comment on the decision processes of the publisher or printer rather than on the artist. We cannot tell whether this was her style or whether she would have presented her work with dark Koudelka tones or in Cartier-Bresson’s broad tonal palette. This is even more of an issue with the colour plates towards the end of the book, colour rendition is the signature of most colour photographers, we recognise Stephen Shore’s subdued tones or William Eggleston’s saturated colours as a hallmark of their style. The colour rendition we are offered here belongs to the book’s authors not to Maier.

The Photographs

Leading on from the previous points the challenge here is that this is not a series, it is not even a collection in the normal sense of the word, it is a selection from a single, albeit the largest, archive and is presented in no obvious sequence. I would argue that, given the problems associated with posthumously publishing an artist’s work for the first time, that adopting  chronological sequence would have made more sense and imposed less of the author’s opinions on the sequence. As it is presented the sequence appears random and ill-thought through.

We know so little of Maier that many of these self portraits can only be considered on compositional terms as it is unclear whether there ever was a narrative. For example, the opening plate from 1960 of Maier on a bench in a snow covered park is typically enigmatic; is Maier included in the composition to provide balance and a foreground subject to complement the path receding into the background or is she the subject?

There are similarities across the selection that might be seen as her style. Her expressions are nearly always neutral, lips together and serious or slightly apart,still serious. Cindy Sherman used similar expressions throughout her Untitled Films Stills (3) series with the specific intent of introducing mystery and so to encourage the viewer to explore their own narratives. With Maier, this reason seems unlikely and more often than not there is only a sense of her concentrating on capturing the image. If we are looking to find something about her character in these expressions, other than finding that her natural look is one of seriousness, we will be disappointed.

There are four pictures in this set where we are offered a glimpse of a lighter personality. In September 10, 1955 Anaheim and July 29, 1954 New York she has a open mouthed, more engaging expression which, whilst not exactly cheerful, make her look far less severe. There are two photographs where she smiles, the cat in 1955 New York which we could call a half smile and a full smile at her reflection in a mirror being held up by a workman in February 1955 New York. I sense that I am clutching at straws here but perhaps the cat photograph suggests her heart is not made of stone and the mirror reflection might be a celebration of having set-up and achieved a shot that required the cooperation of a stranger.

The predominant images are reflective self portraits, followed by shadows and finally a small number of shots where the camera was set-up, perhaps on a timer. Photography is a solitary pursuit for Maier, occasionally the children she cares for are included but mostly she is on her own. We live in a world of selfies, which like so much social media, project a image of “here am I, having fun”, part of the modern trend of self promotion by publishing photographic evidence of our “good”  life. So much social media photography brings advertising techniques to the snapshot. In the case of Maier we see something very different, these self portraits do not promote a fantasised or perfect lifestyle, do not attempt to place her or her life into a positive light or into any particular light. They are deadpan records of fact without embellishment and without the artist offering a subjective option, they are just a small fragment of an extensive visual diary that arguably have been taken out of context. Because she never published we have no title or information to be derived from her selection process to reveal any layers of meaning that might exist.

In the absence of these signifiers it is all too easy to comment on her clothes and her looks and endeavour to pop-analyse her whole character based on these superficialities. Many reviewers, including the essay writer in this book, have resorted to that approach. If there was a point to these photographs her looks or fashion sense were not it. I suggest that Maier was an obsessive picture taker, she was in love with the act of taking photographs, she walked miles around her city looking for compositions that appealed to her and she was occasionally part of those compositions, notice how often that she is on the rule-of-thirds junctions providing balance to the scene that she is capturing.

In the context of preparing for assignment 3 the images that work best for me are the complex reflective self portraits where we are given multiple layers to analyse and understand. This is a  subject I have explored before and the perfect photograph of this type is where the viewer has to work to unravel the image, to identify each layer and place it into the right sequence. The Glass Company in 1971 Chicago and August 25, 1961, Halstead Street, Chicago are good examples of this type of shot.

A Conclusion of Sorts

Vivian Maier has become a cult figure, called everything from a genius and the people’s photographer, to the person who redefined street photography. Her self appointed curators like to slip the names of the greats into their introductions to her work, like a politician being photographed with a rock star we are asked to elevate Maier through association with Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus and others. The problem for the marketeers who are arguing over who owns her work is that a fundamental part of art photography is intent, a desire to communicate or document or explore subjects. Without intent we have snapshots and from the little we understand about Maier we do know that she had no intent to communicate, these were private photographs, and beyond that we cannot know whether the subject or the composition drove her work. If it was the composition we must question whether there is any hidden meaning.

Returning to my opening point there remains the problem of selection. In the Books on Books edition of Walker Evans’s famous American Photographs (4) John Hill tells us that Evans spent “much of” 1938 editing, sequencing and correcting the book. The end result in Hill’s opinion “is a successful collation of these disparate stanzas into an epic poem”. Every print, the flow of the series and the overall collection are an extension of the artist’s project; Forbes (2) makes the point that taking the photo is only half the story and that is the real problem with both Self Portraits and Out of the Shadows (5) which I looked at as additional research. We have no context, no continuity and collections that include disparate subjects, varied styles and prints treated in different ways even within the same book let alone across different books.

I am pleased to have looked at Vivian Maier, she is an accomplished photographer who has documented five decades of New York and Chicago’s history. Some of the photographs are insightful and reveal something of American society, some are thoughtful and considered, some are bland and uninteresting. She has a keen eye for composition but tends to follow the rules, my current tutor night ask her whether she feels she is taking enough risks (i). She is not Winogrand, Cartier-Bresson or Evans, she has not re-defined street photography but  the small amount of her archive that we have seen is a valid and important contribution to the history of American street photography.

One can only hope that once the copyright arguments are settled the owners of her work will donate the archive to one of the American museums of art (ii) so we can see more carefully thought through and professionally curated collections.

Notes on Text

(i) My current tutor has commented that he would take this point of view. He responded Your hypothetical idea of me asking Vivian Maier about whether or not she is taking enough risks is interesting; given the time period she produced her work, her gender and her social status, I believe she took many risks both compositionally and thematically with her work.” A fair point.

(ii) Subsequent research carried out in July 2015 has made me realise that this is a naive view. A number of commentators have pointed out that few if any museums could afford to acquire 150,000 negatives and fund their archiving and publishing. Pamela Bannos, an academic researcher, suggests a more feasible solution whereby the owners of the negatives should donate scanned images to a central and public archive that is open to ongoing study. However, I would still love to see a museum curated collection.



(1) Maier, Vivian (2013) Vivian Maier: Self Portraits. New York: Powerhouse Books

(3) Sherman, Cindy (2003) The Complete Untitled Film Stills (note that the photographs for this series were taken between 1977 and 1980 but not published as a complete work until this book in 2003) London: Thames and Hudson.

(4) Evans, Walker (1938) American Photographs. Books on Books Errata Edition 2011) New York: Errata Editions.

(5) Cahan, Richard & Williams, Michael ( 2012) Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows. Chicago: Cityfiles Press.


(2) Forbes, Ted (2014) Vivian Maier (accessed at The Art of Photography TV 26.4.15) –

This entry was posted in 1 - Autobiographical Self-Portraiture, Books & Exhibitions, Research and Reflection and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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