The Best Street Photographer You've Never Heard Of
As an enormous fan of candid street photography (discovering Cartier-Bresson and Weegee née Arthur Fellig years ago was a revelation for me), I was blown away by both the background story and photographs of Vivian Maier or as Mother Jones described her: “the best street photographer you’ve never heard of.” Maier lived a relatively obscure and anonymous life as a nanny in New York City and then Chicago from the 1950s through 1990s. Never married, her constant companion through her life was her Rolleiflex camera which she used frequently, but apparently she never shared her work with others. It wasn’t until 2007 when John Maloof, 26, purchased a box of Maier’s negatives at an auction house that they came to light. Taken with the quality, he sought out others and ended up collecting more than 100,000 negatives as well as a few thousand rolls of film.
MAIER’S WORK IS PART OF THE decades-old genre of street photography, a field that has included such giants as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, and Diane Arbus. (Judging by her collection of books on photography, Maier was likely aware of their work.) These photographers speak to the profoundly democratic impulse to acknowledge that we all have a place—that our stories matter. She took photos of the downtrodden and the well-heeled. She took photos of festive people and people in distress. She took photos of children and the aged. She took photos of whites and blacks (notable, given the times). Her work is marked by serendipity; she appeared to have no agenda, but instead captured what she stumbled upon. Joel Meyerowitz, the co-author of Bystander: A History of Street Photography and a renowned photographer in his own right, says of Maier’s images: “They are full of wit and surprise and playful spirit…Her basic decent humanism is evident everywhere in her photographs.”