Everybody digs street photography…

… as long as the images are from Vivian Maier.

Actually it looks that the buzz around Vivian Maier shows how much most people’s conception of street photography seems to be frozen in black & white time, at a period around the late 50’s. This is one of the reason why I wrote this series of posts about Vivian Maier because as much premature as it is to do a serious analysis of the work, it seems to me obvious that Vivian Maier’s work is well rooted in its time and does not embrace the further evolution of the genre. Nothing wrong with that, and how could that be otherwise by the way. But street photography is little like jazz, or classical music for most people. There is a breaking point in time when you have to “get it” and it stops to remain a popular genre. Instead it is left to a handful of aficionados, and becomes more and more hermetic to others. That is just the way it is…


Photograph by Vivian Maier

For that respect the recent discovery of Vivian Maier’s work offers an insight onto the gap that sets most contemporary street photographers apart from the main public. The irony of the situation is that Vivian Maier posthumous fame has its origin in the heart of the contemporary street photography ecosystem (it all started here), but finally I believe that as soon as the story really took off (beginning of this year) it has started to cause more prejudice to the genre than it does serve it.


Photograph by Martin Kollar

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for the acknowledgment of Maier’s work, but we are in a singular time capsule sort-of situation here. And the people who like the work, those who usually don’t care much about the genre should ask themselves why and what they find is so much compelling therein. And those who feel there is some genuine merit in the photographs on their own right they should ask themselves how that could be transposed today. I mean: what is the fuel of all that ?

… there are lots of Vivian Maier out there today.

A compared analysis of Vivian Maier’s Work (pdf file)

I’ve edited the 4 posts into a pdf file. For those interested feel free to download it.


VM_compared analysis_201101


A compared analysis of Vivian Maier’s Work (Part 4)

Part1: https://jophilippe.wordpress.com/2011/01/09/a-compared-analysis-of-vivian-maiers-work-part-1/

Part2: https://jophilippe.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/a-compared-analysis-of-vivian-maiers-work-part-2/

Part3: https://jophilippe.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/a-compared-analysis-of-vivian-maiers-work-part-3/

Part 4: Vivian Maier and the “modern”: Harry Callahan, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander

A “modern” approach to street photography, starting from the late 50’s often involves a “peripheral vision”, that is literally opening the frame and capturing much of what’s all around, instead of focusing on / detaching a main subject-matter (albeit its juxtaposed motifs). The result is the suggestion of multiple and sometimes opposite energies and directions and every so often the introduction of tension(s) and visual dissonances. Many old rules are broken. One could make a comparison with tonal music as opposed to polytonality/polymodality (and by the way it is interesting to note that jazz music went through a similar evolution at the very same period with musicians such as Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Jimmy Giuffree …)

Examples of these new conceptions are the ‘Providence’ photograph from Callahan.

Harry Callahan, Providence, 1968

… and this famous photograph below from Winogrand.

Garry Winogrand - Dealey Plaza, Dallas, 1964

These new conceptions requires most of the time to frame into an horizontal aspect ratio (as opposed to square format and portrait format) which sounds rather logical because the world and its energies are largely organized horizontally. But actually there is a new, less rigid sense of frame in photograph which is being developed here, together with the use of lenses of wider angle than used before. And although it is sometimes wrongly perceived as lousy, casual (“snapshot”), there is a concern with filling the frame with as much information as possible (as Winogrand put it) often organized in complex and multi-layered manner (Friedlander), as opposed to narrow down and straighten the perspectives around a simple subject-matter.

Lee Friedlander - Texas, 1966

Also from a rather psychological point of view a more ironical and detached way to look at the world around is achieved. Even the portrait pictures (straight portraits or more environmental one) would benefit from the horizontal aspect.

Lee Friedlander - Self Portrait, 1966

Exception to horizontal framing are for example the vertical shots that Winogrand did, especially of women. But in that case the combination of very wide angle and tilt would make it fit into this new aesthetic.

Photograph by Garry Winogrand

Another consequence of this approach is the decline of empathy in street photography and a higher detachment. The photographers seem to be engaged on a broader visual level rather than simply on one or two individuals detached from the background. Empathy leaves place to a disconnected, elusive, and sometimes a “cartoonesque” or an aggressive vision of the world (Garry Winogrand), or a “slower”, colder and more abstract one (Callahan, Friedlander).

This point is important when it comes to political and sociological themes evoked in photographs since the (western) world (especially America) then went through major changes and events (Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam war, the Feminist Movement…). But the most seminal figures of this new wave of photography would choose not to deal very seriously (i.e. politically) with all that, as opposed to a more radical form of photojournalism which was developing. Hence the controversy (and misunderstanding) around images such as Winogrand’s iconic mixed couple carrying chimps which is unsettling in the context of the rising of political correctness. And both Winogrand and Friedlander were heavily criticized for so-called “reactionary vision” in their women images and nudes. But as a matter of fact they were seemingly interested with the sheer visual aspect of photography first and foremost rather than by making political or sociological statements. “I photograph to see how things look like photographed”… at this point the divorce with photojournalism is complete and other major “straight”-photographers of the forthcoming generation such as Eggleston and Shore would likewise elude the political and sociological content from their work.

William Eggleston - Mississippi, 1969

I think that Maier’s work does not set well into this new approach and instead remains remote thereof. Especially her sense of framing seem to have been inspired by more classical concerns, and it is likely that her use of square format was for her a showstopper to embrace these conceptions (not meaning that using that square crop was a no-go itself – see Friedlander use of it). Also she seems to have favored a closer proximity with subject matter and been concerned about faithful and detailed description, as opposed to a more elusive vision.

Fig 1. Photograph by Vivian Maier

Fig 1 (above) and fig 2. (below), two photograhs from Maier that I find have a “Winogrand vibe” in it. Fig 2. is very interesting, involving some “uncertainty” and is derogatory to Maier’s usually rigorous and balanced framing. How many of that sort did she shot ?

Fig 2. Photograph by Vivian Maier

… Could be that she focused more on her acquired strength and was more willing to refine her skills. Anyhow the evolution of her work from the 60’s and onward is still a bit of a mystery. Especially since there is very few work done with 35mm published so far to figure out if she successfully made a shift in her stylistic approach – or at least if she intended to make a shift. Some clues about that can be found in this recent interview with John Maloof but what we learn is not very promising (or maybe it is ?)


Fig 3. Harry Callahan - Atlanta, 1984

Did Vivian Maier had the “Atlanta” picture from Callahan (fig 3. above)  in mind when she shot this one below (fig 4. below) ? But it is likely that the one from Maier is much older.. Anyway I am not sure that those two images  are very comparable otherwise than just its main subject matter, the red spotted dress. The background and light condition seem to play as much as a prominent role in Callahan’s composition whereas Maier seemed to have been drawn by the hand gesture in the first place.

Fig 4. Photograph by Vivian Maier


Of course that does not mean that she was kind of outdated at one point. She was not, that does not make sense. But it is worth to mention that her style does not achieve a  comprehensive coverage of street-photography. This is worth to be mentioned at a time when one can read here and here many hyperbolic statements about Vivian Maier.