Nancy Guo (:

What constitutes a great artist? The connotation of the title ‘artist’ has evolved throughout art history, long debated along with its counterpart - the argument of what is considered art. Should Warhol be considered a lesser artist than Michelangelo or Bernini? And what of those who achieved greatness only after death, suffering the fates of van Gogh? An artist, it seems, is simply one who creates art. The manner and degree of their achievement, however, is founded solely by this: opinion. It is with this perspective that the work of Vivian Maier was uncovered. Photography, perhaps one of the most controversial mediums during its debut, threatened the notion of traditional art forms so significantly that many rejected its artistic merit. People ignored composition, spontaneity, perspective and form, essential elements in the eyes of a photographer, because of the lack of brushstrokes, or poly-chromatic variation. But one cannot deny the whimsical impact of Maier’s work. She captured not only the streets of New York but also the essence of photography. Her 'amateur' street photographs offer a window into the lives of everyday people in all social classes, a snapshot of reality taken by a mere stranger, a shadow unnoticed by the core of society, a journalist of humankind.

Self-Portrait, New York, February 3, 1955

Armed with a twin-lens Rolleiflex camera and a curious but reclusive mind, Vivian Maier wandered the streets capturing fleeting moments and turning them into something extraordinary. Despite the popularity of her work upon discovery, Maier was never recognized professionally, radiating her introversion onto the exclusivity of her work. Her recognition began with her revelation in the form of a trunk full of over 30,000 negatives, which was sold to John Maloof at a Portage Park auction for 400$. Maloof researched its contents and eventually tracked down the owner of these incredible shots, only to find an obituary of an 83 year old woman in the Chicago Tribune printed just two days prior: Vivian Maier.

Maier maintained her separateness from people as an outsider who documented society instead of becoming part of society. She was secretive in every aspect of her being, living under various pseudonyms and claiming that she was born in France, while in actuality her hometown was New York City. She spoke in an accent that no one could place and dressed in an outdated style to further herself from others. This isolation however, allowed her to observe the world as a separate entity. Maier maintained this image while also creating an environment where she got close enough to photograph her subjects by giving off an aura of elusive charm that made them feel comfortable enough to be photographed within seconds, as a mere stranger passing by on the street.

Maier's work was so extensive that most of her negatives still remain undeveloped today. The small percentage open to the public, however, show her skill as an artist and support that photography is indeed a form of art. Each individual photograph has its own story, one that needs not explanation nor context. Though Maier shows technical skill in capturing a moment with striking impact formally, she allows the viewer to further the meaning of her work. The creativity of the viewer itself is what develops the photograph into something special, something larger than just a still of life. Although each particular photograph is infinitely different and exudes a spectrum of possibilities, there are some general themes in Maier's work that deems it truly extraordinary.

Self-Portrait, May 5th, 1955

January, 1953. New York, NY

Maier's focus on reflection demonstrates her ability as a photographer to recognize balance and composition in one moment. In her photograph taken in January of 1953, she captured the fleeting image of a man and two children strolling the sidewalks of New York. What makes such an ordinary activity so captivating? The idea that the photograph is not posed in itself is fascinating, as the figures,in mid-step, are perfectly reflected in the puddle. Their bodies are framed in two ways - the branches, and the contrast of value between the sky and the silhouettes in the puddle. The sharp juxtaposition of white to black leaves substantial impact on the viewer - a feeling of awe and wonder coupled with mystery and possibility. The self portrait taken on May 5th demonstrates the element of continual reflection. Maier's reflection alternates in the dimension created by placing two circular mirrors across from each other, a literal infinite pattern of her front and back. This particular effect also creates repetition of circles. Since the mirrors are also reflecting each other, each reflection of the mirror itself is also alternating in values of white and grey, creating an illusion of depth. If one were to step back and view the photograph as a whole, it would seem that the wall the real mirror is hanging on might be the empty space of an even larger mirror. The viewers themselves would then be incorporated into the work.


1953. New York, NY

The strong use of line in Maier's work is deliberate and calculated to create an aesthetically balanced piece. The photograph taken in 1953 shows a street of New York, guided by natural orthogonals that recede into a singular vanishing point in the background. Lines are created by the skyline of the buildings on the left, and the structure of the platform on the right, as well as the street itself. Vertical lines are also represented by the long signboards and repeated in the background with the aid of skyscrapers. The undated photograph is a complex masterpiece that incorporates line. Perhaps the most obvious lines are the orthogonals created path itself that connect to a single vanishing point. However, there are also vertical lines created by the columns on the left and horizontal lines of the shadows created by these columns. The horizontals are particularly interesting because they demonstrate another one of Maier's motifs - alternating values of light and dark. These shadows create a striped pattern on the street, which are echoed by the diagonal blinds on the right side of the foreground. The negative space between the blinds again alternate between white and black. Another set of lines and example of contrasts between shadows is the wall of windows to the right. These windows are perpetually interrupted by sections of wall, creating whites while the windows and protruding sections of wall create stark blacks. Lines are again seen in the coffered ceiling, creating a feeling of space and depth. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this piece is that amidst the complex linear motif and rather asymmetric composition, the photograph balanced by the use of reflection - again appearing in Maier's work. The reflection not only is perfectly in line with the reality of its subject, but it is also its complete contrast in terms of light and dark. The values of the woman seem almost inverted, but upon closer inspection it is an illusion possibly caused by the drastic change in value of the piece in general.

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Maier's portraits of people not only captured their likeness but also their essence. There is enough suggested in each photograph that the viewer can make his or her own account of the subject's life. There is playfulness in some, yet menace in others. Some are so bizarre one cannot help but laugh and wonder how Maier was able to capture that moment, whether posed or not. She had the ability to come close to people, almost as if she was invisible, and capture their personality in a single photograph. The diversity of people of all backgrounds, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic rank is evident in Maier's collection of negatives, scattered throughout her archives and accurately representing the people of New York and beyond.

Maier's work transformed moments of history into something beautiful. The photograph from Chicago in the 1950s shows the inside of a train with male figures silhouetted against the white windows. Aesthetically it is beautiful, with the sharp contrast in colors both at the top of the photograph by the lights and also in the middle by the windows. The light vs dark element also creates lines that converge towards a point beyond the photograph near the top left. However this is not merely a work of art but also a work of history. Maier depicts the conformity of society after the Second World War, disillusionment. The men are all wearing the same suit and had, and reading the same newspaper. The way they are photographed makes them seem cold and mechanical, with faces away from the camera, making them seem even more detached from the real world.

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Maxwell Street, Chicago, IL. 1962
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Kirk Douglas at the premiere of the movie Spartacus in Chicago, IL. October 13, 1960

The undated photograph of two men siting on a fence together had no information to further its actual meaning. However, the photograph itself can tell a story based on the viewer's own beliefs. Almost immediately, the two figures in this photograph seemed as though they quite resembled the main characters of John Steinbek's Novel Of Mice and Men. The novel focuses on the hardships of two migrant ranch workers, looking for jobs after the devastating Dust Bowl. One of the characters, Lennie, is small, lean, and takes care of his larger, stronger, and more slow-minded friend, George. It is commonly believed that George suffered from a mental illness that was unknown when the book was published. The novel prioritizes on the friendship between these brothers by bond and follows them until their best laid schemes go awry. If intentional, Maier had captured the real-life representations of these beloved characters while strolling in the park. However, opinion is merely opinion, and there is no way of knowing absolutely what the photographer had intended. Of course, this furthers the claim that photography, like art, is open to whatever the viewer sees it as, and should not be treated as a strict and rigid separate entity.

1950s. Chicago, IL
Vivian Maier is the forgotten photographer, an artistic genius who was never recognized for her impact during her life. She captured fleeting moments of serendipity, not only captivating feeling and character but also creating aesthetic wonder through formal elements. Her reclusive mind allowed her to peek into the window of society and take a snapshot as an outsider. She leaves the scene of her subjects undisturbed, completely forgotten except as
a capsule in the one of thousands of her negatives. Maier notices without being noticed, and was successful in that aspect for the duration of her life.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York: Penguin, 1993. Print.