A compared analysis of Vivian Maier’s Work (Part 1)

These are mere personal thoughts and notes, I have no critique background nor did I receive any formal training fort that field and purpose. But I feel the work of Vivian Maier requires some study. My thoughts might appear superficial and not documented enough but they are my 2 cents. I hope others, much more qualified than I am, will take time in commenting Maier’s work. And you are more than welcome to discuss the points I will make.

I’ve edited the 4 posts (part 1-2-3-4) into a pdf file. For those interested feel free to download it.

VM_compared analysis_201101


One point which is raised here and here is to which extent the work of Maier was derivative. But we got almost no direct information about which work from other photographers she had access (except a collection of books that we don’t know when she got them). So I will try to figure out which are the photographers who might have influenced her, or at least to who she could be related from the perspective of her photographic vision.

Don’t ask me to say that she was better than X or inferior to Y. This makes little sense to me. What I want to do is to roughly put her work into perspective with other photographers that did a similar kind of work (i.e. mostly street photographers) within a similar time frame

One difficult thing in assessing Maier’s work is that we have to compare materials which, on one side, has been often harshly edited by the photographers themselves and their curators, whereas we are left with very small portion from a wide and unedited-by-her body of work in the case of Vivian Maier. A photographer’s vision his not only built at the moment of the exposure but also owes a lot to how the work is edited afterwards. In the case of Vivian Maier this stage of editing the work has been eluded at the time of her living and that task is carried out now by third parties, decades after the photographs were produced and with almost no insight on how she would have worked out her material. As much appealing as some pictures might seem to us now there could be a “nostalgia” or whatever bias in the images selected, an inclination for historical documentary value that comes across, and from which the work itself was probably devoid. After all we don’t know how many pictures were rejected by Cartier-Bresson, Levitt etc.. and that would appear to be fantastic shots if unveiled today. Those are probably numerous.

Also one note concerning the date of some of the Maier’s pictures I will use: those are the one that I could get from what is publicly available on blogs etc…which I am not sure how they were established. It is an important factor but at this stage I can not do otherwise than trust those dates.

So let’s start Part 1: Vivian Maier, Lisette model and Diane Arbus.

If you ask me which photographer the Maier’s work unveiled so far seem to be related the most I would say Lisette Model. By the way Maier and Model strangely share some early very similar biographical details, separated by a time lag of about 20 years (earlier for Model). Both women had an Austrian Jewish father (who died when they were young) and a French catholic mother. Both were baptized Roman Catholic. Although Maier was born in New-York and Model in Austria they both spent a significant part of their youth in France, where they meet some artistic figures and got formal photography training (at least we can assume so in the case of Maier), before emigrating/returning to the US. At this point their life has diverged, Maier becoming a nanny when Model pursued a career as a photographer.

Maier shares with Model many stylistic features as well as an inclination for similar “characters” as subject matter. There is the use of glass reflections, a trend to expressionism, and also doing close-up of people body parts.

Photograph by Lisette Model

Photograph by Vivian Maier

Photograph by Lisette Model

Photograph by Vivian Maier

But one thing that strikes me is the very likeness of self-portraiture.

Lisette Model. Self portrait

Lisette Model. Self portrait


Vivian Maier. Self-portrait

It is difficult to argue whether or not, or to which extent, Maier was influenced by Model. There is no biographical information known so far that says she was in contact with her work. Maybe the two ladies have naturally developed similarities in their vision, Maier ignoring Model’s work. Maybe the common features of their early life has contributed to build a similar outlook on the world.

But despite obvious similarities there is in my opinion some noticeable difference in the tonality, the “social statement”contained in the pictures – and it may have to do with what Colin Westerbeck referred as “a lack of distance” when speaking about Maier’s images. Whereas Lisette Model’s eye is often critical, distant and sometimes on the verge of caricature, as an early precursor of Martin Parr, Maier is much more into light irony and empathy towards her subjects. I would say that the “Mary Poppins” (a word that was used to describe her) often points out in Maier’s work. But again, this impression is based on the work publicly available so far, compared to what has been edited for Model. At this point it has to be noted that Maier was fond of cinema. She was said to sometimes refer herself as a movie critique, and I feel that it shows in some of her photographs. She sometimes shoot the people to give them the feel of actors, she seem to have liked to shoot well-dressed people etc… In other words she showed some aesthetic refinement and maybe a tendency to romanticize that, more often than not, inhibits the work from having a more critical, cynical and/or social dimension. That could lead to say some of her work suffers of being somewhat shallow, too much romantic, but we can argue that Helen Levitt did the same, in the sense that she would wear out the social dimension from her pictures – though she used other strategy for that.

The fact that Diane Arbus was a pupil of Lisette Model, and that Model’s influence was a key factor for Arbus later work might have something to do with the parallel made between Maier and Arbus. But I believe that the comparison between Maier and Arbus lies on rather superficial aspects though, including the use of square format. The point is that if you use a square format for doing street portrait or environmental portrait you are likely to come close – superficially – to Arbus aesthetic.

But I believe that Arbus derived from Model a much more “psychological” approach to photography. An inclination for a certain expressionism, and extreme, often marginal, characters are the obvious starting points of Arbus later work, but they don’t definite it completely. Also at one point of her career (early 60’s) Arbus ceased to be the genuine street-photographer that she has been briefly, in the strict sense of the SP tradition. She seemed to have needed more overall intimacy. On the other hand Maier’s approach has remained very “street” throughout her life and her style of street portraiture, though sometimes highly original, is rooted in the street tradition.

I won’t risk myself to develop an extensive analysis of Arbus work, which is very complex and  for which there is lot of already existing materials. But one point which I find interesting though, in the context of  a comparison with Maier, is the relationship of subject matter to the background, the direct environment as it is described in the photograph. It is true that some work by Arbus, especially outdoor candid shots, might come close to some of Maier’s portraits. But whereas Maier often uses more classical strategies (based on graphical relationships, playing with perspectives, lines and textures), Arbus would often create a sort of intriguing continuum between her model and what is all around (which sometimes is very cluttered and has no graphical obviousness), with a resulting quasi-impersonation of the surrounding – to the point that in some pictures it mimics the model him/herself. With Arbus the relation main-subject-to-background ceased to be graphical or documentary, but instead expands the psychological dimension of the image. She has been extremely influential on later generations of photographers for that.


Photograph by Diane Arbus

Maier was a prodigious street portrait maker, probably one of the best ever. Her work shows an incredible instinct and spontaneity, as well as technical excellence for that kind of image. But it does not involve that compelling, unsettling psychological closeness which is present in Diane Arbus most iconic shots. Actually I believe the works from Maier and Arbus differ deeply in nature.

Photograph by Vivian Maier


Part2: Vivian Maier and Helen Levitt

Part3: Vivian Maier and HCB

Part4: Vivian Maier and the “modern”: Harry Callahan, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander

5 thoughts on “A compared analysis of Vivian Maier’s Work (Part 1)

  1. What a coincidence – Vivane Maier is all over the web and you find her work in places where you’d least expect it. Check my post about her appearance in a Hungarian trash site, LOL.
    Anyway, a very well-written analyse Jacques. It also makes me wonder how much criticizm the last two photographs had drawn on themselves if posted anywhere on the contemporary net – “lighting is dreadful with the harsh shadows”, “too bad you cropped the foot” et cetera. How good it’s not other photographers who decide about the quality and impact of a photograph but time.
    The comparison between Arbus and Maier is an open question since we more or less know about Arbus’ artistic credo but from Maier there’s nothing like that, only the photographs, which is of course a pity… on the one hand you have a clearly defined vision supported by statements of the photographer herself, while on the other hand you have to reconstruct Maier’s vision from her photographs alone.
    Probably the intimacy – ie the lack of distance – in Maier’s work s attributable that she photographed more or less her own everyday world and didn’t just go for a day’s photo stroll. Maybe she didn’t even consider herself a photographer, and the lack of pressure of putting vision and statement into the images helped her to keep a fresh eye, where it was the context that determined a photograph and not artistic preconception.
    Like the difference between going into the woods for collecting mushrooms and a leisurely stroll – in the first case you’ll find mushrooms and in the second, you’ll find anything. One sees more when free of preconceptions. Just a thought…

  2. I agree about the “reconstructing Maier’s vision” point. Here is a fatal bias in the attempt of analyzing her work (from which we today know few if we consider the number of exposures she did).

    The “mushrooms vs leisurely stroll” is one very point that makes Arbus differ from Maier. Arbus went for the mushrooms whereas Maier apparently went out strolling. There are some early candid (and less-known) images from Arbus which could be compared to Maier’s street portraits. But at one point Arbus opted for a different routine, she gave up doing candid, made appointments, asked the people to pose… It’s a totally different process, and a resulting different artistic statement.

  3. Loved reading your analysis. What you attempted here is indeed a brave thing. Your analysis was much needed since many have chosen to get caught up in the euphoria of the discovery and what seems to be nostalgia for a bygone era instead of studying her work. For every Vivian Maier that will be discovered God only knows how many more photographers from that era have languished in obscurity. Also an interesting thought – given the ubiquity of digital cameras will we ever have a similar discovery say 50 years from now?

  4. What’s distinctive about Maier is that she is the first person to use a camera for something other than photography. Her art is looking at things through a lens. Her art is not photography. I don’t know what you would call her art form, but it’s not photography. If you used paint for something other than painting (in any sense, for any reason), then that would be comparable to Maier’s art form. She’s much closer to the Dadaists. It’s more like a form of Dada theatre, in which the performance takes place inside the camera. “I am a camera,” the man said. But what if the camera said it? That’s Maier. Duchamp would have loved, not her photographs, but instead, what she did with her camera, and the negatives and the photos are a way of extending the action which is caught in the camera. They are the “trail” of the action which takes place in the camera. As you may know, the figure which is coming out of the right side of Guernica is (or was) holding a piece of toilet paper. That toilet paper is to the narrative of Guernica what Maier’s negatives and photos are to what goes on inside her camera.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s