Vivian Maier’s East 108th Street is typical of her earlier work representing the optimism of 1950’s America, describing a vibrant, positive and potentially romanticised image of urban America. In this scene from Spanish Harlem we see Maier’s instinct for, what Richard Kalvar (1) describes as, creating dramas using “unposed pictures of people … with nothing particularly important going on”. Maier’s work rarely pretends to contain grand ideas, more journalist than documentarist (i), she captured the seemingly insignificant moments when the private lives of ordinary people spilled into the public spaces of the city recording a decade when America was at peace before the divisiveness of racial conflict and the Vietnam war in the 1960s.
The energy of the street, where eight separate events are being played out, is juxtaposed with the peaceful aspect of the block’s upper story, its windows open to the late summer air and a pillow airing on a ledge. Maier, who had grown up in the Bronx, understood the immigrant districts of New York, where Europeans, from poor rural backgrounds, imported a village lifestyle where buildings were dormitories and the street rather than the piazza became the social hub of the community. Whilst this juxtaposition of empty space and activity works at one level it is possible that Maier saw the people filled street as the picture and only included the upper story because of the square format imposed by her Rollieflex. Jill Nicholls’ (2) comparison of Maier’s negatives with the tightly cropped prints she occasionally produced suggests her focus was often entirely on human subjects; the wider context of the background held little interest for her.
The questions of whether or how she would have cropped this image are typical of the ambiguities that surround her work. Some of these uncertainties are inevitable when dealing with a posthumous, fractured and undocumented archive (ii) but her self appointed curators have surrounded her work with complex layers of misinformation that corrupt the context and cloud her intent. (iii)
This picture denotes a busy street scene with five distinct compositional groups; two of the groups are internally focussed in conversation, the five children are in their own private worlds, ignoring each other and the adults; only the man on the left connects the groups with his eye line to the black boy and his whitewall tyre. Of the twelve subjects only the child on the right is showing any sign of noticing the photographer suggesting that Maier had the ability to fade into the background. She seems an instinctive photographer, quickly seeing, composing and capturing, what Szarkowski calls the “invisible subject” (iv), the picture inside the scene, consequently her compositions can contain untidy elements; in this instance the camera is pointing slightly upwards introducing some distortion, the child with the tricycle is mostly obscured and the point of an elbow appears on the left; but spontaneity results in her capturing a nearly perfect configuration of the separate events, spaced rhythmically across the frame, with engaging points of detail such as the child’s legs centred in the rolling tyre. The balanced composition giving the impression of a directed tableau suggests that Maier, an amateur film critic, saw the street as theatre, a production to be reported and documented.
The strength of this ordinary scene lies in the connotations it offers the viewer; the street could be a metaphor for the cycle of life, the smallest children safe indoors but watching the little dramas of the street, the young black boy rushing towards his teenage years, the middle-aged adults busy in their relationships and the isolated, older man, his face etched by hardship but still standing strong, looking back at the innocence of childhood.
We could read the image as a discourse on race; the black boy rolls a whitewall tyre, itself an ironic symbol of the black American dream (v), through a predominately Latino neighbourhood. His presence along with the black woman ahead of him and the southern European residents might represent a peaceful, multi-racial society, a comforting idea supported by the relaxed and cheerful conversation between the two walking women; but the older man’s body language and stare could hint at the tensions that would erupt nearby as the Harlem Race Riots less than five years later (7).
There is a contrast between the dirty street, the generally run-down look of the building and the smart residents. The Italians have an expression, fare bella figura (vii), which describes part of the essence of being Italian, projecting an aura of perfection in all things from the way to dress to the way one acts. This street scene includes a series of signifiers that speak to that idea, the older man in his smart shirt and neatly coiffured hair, the fashionable white trousers of the women in the trio at the window, the clean white socks of the child near the tyre and the white blouses of the three younger children signify that these families’ take great pride in their appearance which, within a Latino community, communicates the much broader concepts of bella figura.
Vivian Maier was a contemporary of the icons of American street photography (vii), but reading of Winogrand or Friedlander we never learn how they dressed; whether Friedlander wore clumpy shoes or Winogrand owned a wide brimmed hat. Yet, for Maier her publishers have focussed attention on her race, gender, class, personality and fashion sense in a way that has undermined her work (viii). I believe she was influenced by the photographers who were working in America in the 50s and 60s, but, based on the fraction of her archive that has been made public, it is both superficial and one-dimensional to attempt comparisons. She was a ordinary woman, with a basic education, born into a working class, immigrant family with no known history in the arts, a third generation domestic servant in society sharply divided by race and money; her class and gender limited any ambitions she might have held to break the mould but they also defined her approach to photography. East 108th Street embodies many of her serialised subjects; the theatre of the street, children at play, human relationships and the diversity of an immigrant city.
Notes on Text
(i) In an earlier essay (here) I have discussed the idea that Maier exhibits the attributes of a detached journalist more than a engaged documentary photographer. However, it is journalism more in the sense of a diarist than a news reporter; the few contact sheets that are available suggest she recorded a series of wholly unconnected events on a roll of film as opposed to investigating a specific subject from different metaphorical or physical angles.
(ii) As a comparison it is interesting to read the introduction to Garry Winogrand (3). Winogrand “died young and suddenly …. leaving his work in considerable disarray”. Leo Rubinfien and his colleagues, all curators of great experience, found the task of compiling a comprehensive exhibit of his work highly challenging. Although Winogrand left no diaries or statements of intent he had published five books, had been exhibited many times during his lifetime and presented slide shows of his work on several occasions so the curators had a reference point and were, of course, well qualified for the task in hand. In contrast Maier’s curators are significantly less qualified and much of her written archive was discarded before its value was recognised.
(iii) Pamela Bannos, a photography professor and researcher has compiled a list of inaccuracies in John Maloof’s Film Finding Vivian Maier (3). Some of these errors are comparatively trivial but others fundamentally alter the context of her work and most damningly use her behaviour as an elderly women as evidence of her personality as a young photographer.
(iv) John Szarkowski tells us that the photographer’s skill is to see beyond reality and find the “still invisible” picture (4) and that the captured image, by surviving the subject becomes more important than the original event. John Szarkowski’s book, The Photographer’s Eye, is discussed in more length in Other Perspectives – John Szarkowski.
(v) As voiced by blues artists such as Lightnin’ Hopkins in “Big Black Cadillac Blues” the black cadillac with white wall tyres is mentioned as an aspiration in several early blues songs and often ironically linked with the whites of the eyes and skin colour of the aspiring owner. A “white wall” would later become a racial slur for a black man pretending to be white (5)
(vi) Fare bella figura (literally to make a beautiful figure) is part of the essence of being Italian. Cutting a good figure or making a good impression only partly explains this idea. For an Italian it is a complex mix of the family’s social standing, their own sense of self and the external expression of their values. At the simplest level it is on display in every Italian town on Saturday evening when the population dresses in their finery, often the latest fashions, to take part in the passeggiata, a stroll through the town to see and be seen. There are complex rules that foreigners would struggle to understand, for example the wearing of coats is dictated not by the temperature but by the calendar so a warm autumn evening will still require a beautiful coat. However, it extends way beyond clothes; to pay for someone’s coffee in a café is not just an act of kindness it can be a statement of being able to afford to do so, hinting at comparative status and patronage. A child’s success at school will be described as “ha fatto una bella figura”, they have done the right thing and made the family proud. Having never lived in France I don’t know whether Vivian Maier would have grown up in a family who understood bella figura but living in the Bronx would have certainly exposed her to Italian culture so I am certain she would have read and understood these signs on the street.
(vii) I looked at her contemporaries which include Erwitt, Morath, Winogrand, Arnold and Frank in an earlier essay Vivian Maier: The Photographer
(viii) One of the most disappointing aspects of John Maloof’s film Finding Vivian Maier (7) is his focus on her clothes, hats and shoes and the surprise that he expresses that such a person could have taken these photographs. He and some other owners of her photographs focus attention on the “nanny who took photographs” as if this is a contradiction in terms. I accept that in the 1950s this was not necessarily common place and that she took far more photographs than the average amateur but Kodak, for one, was actively targeting women in their advertisements at this time and there were many highly acclaimed female photographers working in the same decade including Eve Arnold, Diane Arbus, Inge Morath, Lisette Model, Margret Bourke-White and Helen Levitt.
(4) Rubinfien, Leo (2013) Garry Winogrand. New Haven and London: Yale University Press
(5) Szarkowski, John ( 2007) The Photographer’s Eye (originally published in 1966 and based on a 1964 exhibition at the MoMA) New York: The Museum of Modern Art
(7) Maloof, John (2104) Finding Vivian Maier. Produced, Written and Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Distributed by Soda Pictures.
(1) Kalvar, Richard (2007) Richard Kalvar (accessed at In-Public 9.8.15) – http://www.in-public.com/RichardKalvar
(2) Nicholls, Jill (2013) Vivian Maier: Lost Art of an Urban Photographer (accessed at BBC Arts 26.7.15) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/0/23007897
(3) Bannos, Pamela – Vivian Maier’s Fractured Archive. (Accessed at the Vivian Maier Project 26.7.15) – http://vivianmaierproject.com
(6) The Racial Slur Database (accessed at the The Racial Slur Database 10.8.15) – http://www.rsdb.org/race/blacks
(7) New York Race Riots (accessed at the Civil Rights Digital Library 10.8.15) – http://crdl.usg.edu/events/ny_race_riots/?Welcome