The story of the shy nanny who spent her spare time chronicling the streets of Chicago and further afield on her Rolleiflex but who died under sad circumstances before anyone could appreciate her ability touched me as much as anyone else.
You can't listen to her story without being moved and the thousands of photographs she left behind are a fitting testament to her life and work. BUT, switching from heart to head, did Vivian deserve to be fast-tracked onto the list of near-mythical photographers?
Setting aside the undoubted charm and compelling appeal of her life, are her photographs really so good? Or have we been swept along by the pathos of the whole Vivian Maier back story? I've visited the websites dealing with Vivian's work and seen the TV documentaries (haven't seen John Maloof's film yet) and really enjoy her photographs.
However, my tentative opinion is that there is a gulf between Vivian's best work and that of the acknowledged masters such as Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, and Doisneau who worked in the same genre and who were her contemporaries.
I can close my eyes and bring to mind many photographs from HCB and his ilk but there are few Maier images that have the same effect on me and most of those that do are her "selfies". This isn't just a familiarity thing, either. Obviously, I've spent longer looking at classic street photography than Maier's work but my study of her photography has been more recent.
|Probably my favourite Vivian photograph.|
Vivian's photography is of a standard that I imagine I or most readers could have produced given the same opportunity - and let's not forget that her opportunities were considerable. Vivian seems to have had lots and lots of spare time in between dropping off her young charges at school and, presumably, picking them up again at home time along with her free weekends.
She also seems to have had a reasonable disposable income based on the number of films she shot and the fact that she was able to afford a Rolleiflex, a camera outwith the reach of most working class people in the 1950s.
Putting Vivian's output into some perspective, the 150,000 negatives she exposed during her photographic life-time is the equivalent of eight rolls of 120 film every week for 30 years. That's prodigious. Me? I'm lucky if I get through around 40 to 50 films a year. Sometimes I'll shoot four rolls in a week - half of Vivian's work rate - but then will go two or three weeks without doing much at all.
But maybe burning huge amounts of celluloid (or polyester, or whatever) is what all truly dedicated photographers do. Then there's the fact that, to us, the scenes of Chicago and New York are just so photogenic as were the characters that frequented the mean streets in those days. Put all of that together and, as Columbo might have said, you have means, motive and opportunity for street photography.
Which of us, spending all of that time on the streets with a great camera and plenty of film, couldn't have produced a similar body of work? But match HCB? No way. I think there's a spark of genius in the fabled Frenchman.
|My favourite Kertesz photograph and probably, in fact,|
one of my favourite pics of all time!
This post isn't meant to disparage Vivian or her photography because I'm a great admirer, not just of her pictures but of the fact that she had the dedication to so comprehensively chronicle an interesting period in history along with some compelling city backdrops. But I do wonder if she hasn't been elevated to that pantheon of great photographers just a little too quickly, based more on her back story than purely on her abilities as a photographer.