A compared analysis of Vivian Maier’s Work (Part 3)

Part 1: https://jophilippe.wordpress.com/2011/01/09/a-compared-analysis-of-vivian-maiers-work-part-1/

Part 2: https://jophilippe.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/a-compared-analysis-of-vivian-maiers-work-part-2/


Part3: Vivian Maier and Cartier-Bresson.

I’ll start this post with a general comment following a review of the recent Vivian Maier show in Chicago, written by Dave Fultz on TOP, and especially about that statement which I find curious :

Her portraits of adults on the other hand are curious. There is a peculiar sort of neutrality to many of them that some might say is a discursive style choice but that I find lacks the direct human connection that is so often the mark of truly great street photography

In the following comments reader Ken Tanaka replies:

Her images of adults are, indeed, quite detached and treat the subjects like zoo spectacles. But I, personally, like that very much. I’m not that interested in engaging with people as subjects, either.

… which I think offers a better perspective. Indeed I disagree with Dave Fultz initial statement, not in the fact that her stare on adults is curious, but on the critique about lack of connection. Actually many great street photographers show that detachment (and by the way the controversial sayings from Colin Westerbeck about Maier was to argue the exact opposite!), and speaking of “treating the subjects like zoo spectacles”, Garry Winogrand, a master of the street genre, had few to learn from anybody else on the matter.

And there is often the same sort of detachment, “neutrality” with Cartier-Bresson as well, that sort of aristocratic outlook on the world. And the resulting tension between detachment and empathy can every so often make great images.


Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson


Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson



Photograph by Vivian Maier

Actually it might be not a very good idea to draw a short comparison of Maier’s work to that of Henri Cartier-Bresson. But it is difficult to imagine that a street-photographer of the generation of Vivian Maier could have ignored the seminal Cartier-Bresson. What did she saw from HCB ? Did she like it and did that influence her ?


Photograph by Vivian Maier


Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson


I find that, in the like of Cartier-Bresson, Maier had a remarkable sense of geometry. She was seemingly often after compositions involving multiple and complex lines with resulting neat images. Furthermore there are few architectural shots from Maier that testimonies her concerns about such sharp lines and patterns. Check out the very interesting one below.

Fig 1. Photograph by Vivian Maier

It would be interesting to learn about chronological data about those architecture shots. The one published so far seem to have been done at a later point of her life. So I am not sure if the architectural shots helped her to build up her composition skill for more street images, if it was a new direction, or if more simply it was part of her routine to alternate people shots and such architecture shots. One thing though is that on some occasional pictures one can see how she would interlace the idea of strong lines and street vibe, such as in the one below.

Fig 2. Photograph by Vivian Maier

Compare that shot (fig 2) to that of the airport before (fig 1). Note the exact same use of triangle in the upper left corner.

Although these are far to be my favorite sort of shots, and in my opinion and more importantly not the most personal kind of thing she came up with, they undoubtedly show Maier’s concerns and high level of consciousness for geometric lines. But whereas Cartier Bresson was often after curves, Vivian Maier was seemingly more keen to use sharp lines for backdrops. One can say that the geometry conceptions of Maier were more “masculine” than the one from HCB in some way.

Actually I find her work sometimes evokes André Kertész much more than Cartier-Bresson.

Photograph by André Kertész


… or … well ?…

Photograph by Vivian Maier


Although Cartier-Bresson can be held responsible for having established a sort of classicism of street and reportage photography, some further stylistic evolutions are more or less embryonic in his work, that prefigures what people such as Winogrand and Friedlander would do, especially the use of multiple-layers and “peripheral vision”.

Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

I’ll talk about that in Part 4.

Also don’t miss this insightful interview with John Maloof: http://blakeandrews.blogspot.com/2011/01/q-with-john-maloof.html