Posted by Raven10 (1922 posts) -

Some of you who are art lovers may have spent time over the past year exploring the work of Vivien Maier. This brilliant photographer is today considered one of the greatest who ever lived. Yet despite taking over 100,000 photos throughout the 1950's and 1960's she never developed a single negative. It wasn't until 2007, over half a century later, that her undeveloped work was purchased by an amatuer historian at a Chicago auction house. As he started developing the photos he realized that he had stumbled upon a work of great importance. Here were some of the greatest street photos of Chicago and New York ever taken yet he had no idea who took the photos or when. It wasn't until 2009 that he learned of Vivien Maier, and at that point she was already dead. Speaking to her friends and relatives, the historian learned that no one knew about her photographs. She never spoke of them, never showed them to anybody. In fact very few people knew anything about her. She was private and secretive. Her life remains mostly a mystery even today. Later this year a documentary will be released that does its best to piece together the life of Vivien Maier. Meanwhile you can look through some of her photos and find more info here.

I think the most interesting part of this story to me is imagining in today's society a person who never shared a single photo they took. Today's obsession with fame, fans, and followers means that most people put as much of themselves as possible out there for the world to see. People make art and post it online hours after it is done. You aren't an artist unless you have an online portfolio, and a Facebook Like page where all your friends and fans can openly admire your greatness. Who now makes art for the sake of art? Vivien took photos because it was her passion. She created art for the sake of creating art. Creativity was her drive and creation was her end goal. Fame and fortune were not in her mind. This was a woman who knew her skill and talent and didn't need or want anyone to tell her how great she was. Some of my friends on Facebook have well over 1,000 photos posted. Instagram lets people take and share a photo instantly across the web. Seeing something cool means sharing it with your friends. Making something cool means sharing it ith your friends. In our connected society the idea of a Vivien Maier is almost ridiculous. Yet here we are about to learn the story of one of the greatest photographers of all time who never shared a single photograph. It just makes me think about today's society and our obsession with celebrity. To be so great yet never admit it. Now that is truly an artist.

#1 Posted by MordeaniisChaos (5730 posts) -

I don't think most people make their art just for likes. Those are really good pictures though.

#3 Posted by McGhee (6075 posts) -

@raven10: That's pretty cool actually. I would like to watch the documentary. One thing, though. We don't know that she "knew her skill and talent." It may be that she was so secretive because of her own insecurities, that she thought it wasn't good enough to show anyone. There is a drive there as well, a drive to get better to prove to oneself that you are good enough. But who can say?

#4 Edited by Trav (240 posts) -

This is pretty cool. I can't imagine putting so much time and work into something with little to literally no external affirmation.

On the other hand, I can absolutely understand the desire to never show someone your work--it's nerve-wracking, and something I personally am incredibly bad at. This fear can be dominating over the desire for appreciation or affirmation. I don't know whether it was a lack of confidence, or a pure indifference in people's opinion of her art that led her to be so secretive, but I'm glad her photographs are coming to light now. Too bad she isn't around anymore to talk about her motivations.

#5 Posted by JasonR86 (9726 posts) -

As an avid video-gamist I think I have a pretty good understanding of the arts. So when I say those pictures look really good then you know that statement carries some weight.

#6 Edited by TruthTellah (9472 posts) -

Who now makes art for the sake of art?

A lot of people.

Though, other than that misguided sentiment, I'm glad you shared this post. Some great photos and a very interesting story. Hopefully even more people will get to experience her work soon. :)

#7 Posted by SecondPersonShooter (619 posts) -

@jasonr86 said:

As an avid video-gamist I think I have a pretty good understanding of the arts. So when I say those pictures look really good then you know that statement carries some weight.

I wasn't sure how to judge the quality of the art, I only casually video game on my iPhone from time to time, so I'm not "really" into the whole "art' thing. Seeing this recommendation from a real, true gamer makes me appreciate the photographs much more.

#8 Posted by Inkerman (1455 posts) -

Vivien Maier is a fucking awesome name as well, perfect for a photographer.

#9 Edited by Raven10 (1922 posts) -

@mcghee: @trav: That is definitely true. She could of hidden it out of fear that people wouldn't like it. But the trailer definitely made it seem like she was just a person who didn't much care what other people had to say. Although I guess she could have just been really shy.

@truthtellah: Fair enough. I just think the entire idea of someone just privately taking tens of thousands of photos and never sharing them is crazy in today's society. But what do I know?

#10 Posted by Evilsbane (4738 posts) -

Some of those photos are insane I would love to see an online gallery of them.

#11 Posted by TruthTellah (9472 posts) -

@raven10: It's definitely an interesting story. Though, even today, I would say most great photos and art may never really be seen or appreciated. Something like this is likely not less common today but actually the reverse. Many more people have the tools for taking photographs, but it's less and less likely that any of them will be seen or recognized by broader society.

#12 Edited by Clonedzero (4196 posts) -

I hate black and white pictures. Sure they look artsy but i could take a black and white picture of my morning shit and it'd look artsy in black and white. Just saying is all....

#13 Edited by deadmoscow (268 posts) -

Vivien Maier's body of work is amazing, not only for the fact that it went undiscovered for so long, but because it's just incredible street photography. It stands up with Winogrand and Cartier-Bresson's work, as far as I'm concerned. It's almost more impressive that most of them were shot with a Rolleiflex - it's a lot harder to get candid shots when you've got a huge medium format camera on you, which is why most street photographers used discrete 35mm cameras, like Leicas.

Maier also makes me feel like a total idiot for sharing every stupid little piece of art I make on Facebook or Flickr or Twitter or whatever. I made a dumb little painting last night and put it on the internet, for what? Some small feeling of validation and a handful of "likes"?

@clonedzero said:

I hate black and white pictures. Sure they look artsy but i could take a black and white picture of my morning shit and it'd look artsy in black and white. Just saying is all....

"Books are stupid, I hate them! Sure, people love reading them, but they're just a bunch of words on a page. I can put a bunch of words on a page too, check this shit out! Rubber. Canada. Trench. Vending machine. Barcode. See!? I'm a great author now!"

#14 Edited by themangalist (1747 posts) -

Definitely an interesting life story. Those are some pretty artsy photographs as well.

But...

I'm just not so sure about photography as an art form. You can tell me a teenager took those photos with Instagram and I'd still believe you. To know that she used some old camera to take those pictures really mean nothing to an outsider like me. I think photography is the only creative "art" I don't respect that much.

#15 Posted by JasonR86 (9726 posts) -

@jasonr86 said:

As an avid video-gamist I think I have a pretty good understanding of the arts. So when I say those pictures look really good then you know that statement carries some weight.

I wasn't sure how to judge the quality of the art, I only casually video game on my iPhone from time to time, so I'm not "really" into the whole "art' thing. Seeing this recommendation from a real, true gamer makes me appreciate the photographs much more.

You're welcome.

#16 Posted by deadmoscow (268 posts) -

I'm just not so sure about photography as an art form. You can tell me a teenager took those photos with Instagram and I'd still believe you. To know that she used some old camera to take those pictures really mean nothing to an outsider like me. I think photography is the only creative "art" I don't respect that much.

When some teenager with Instagram creates a cohesive body of work that documents something like Chicago street life with the kind of emotional quality that Vivien Maier or any other actual photographer can produce, get back to me. I can understand why someone might brush off photography because you "just point and shoot, right?" I used to have the same reaction before I tried to pick up a camera and do the same thing. Both film and digital photography require a huge amount of developed skill and dedication to be able to produce something of passable technical quality, let alone create work that makes any kind of statement or observation about the world. The magic of photography is in capturing the "decisive moment," where all the elements of space and time align themselves perfectly and you are able to capture it. I've been taking pictures for years, made thousands upon thousands of exposures, and I can really only point to two or three of my pictures that I would call "good" in any sense.

I don't mean to come off like an asshole, but I really wish people wouldn't brush off photography as a whole because some stupid fucking kids are taking pictures of their lunch with a Holga filter.

#17 Edited by Ghost_Cat (1472 posts) -

"Greatest photographer" is a serious title not to be thrown around lightly, and, though her pictures are great, I personally don't think she has earned that badge.
I have a friend who creates particle effects for a living at a studio, and is really talented as a graphic designer and with motion graphics, but doesn't share his personal work publicly. It's not necessary for him, because he is satisfied with the final product, and that's the only thing that matters to him.

I hate black and white pictures. Sure they look artsy but i could take a black and white picture of my morning shit and it'd look artsy in black and white. Just saying is all....

I'm glad Dive Kick is a thing now, because this is a perfect situation to use this example: when you take away the colors, you are left with only composition and story (minus how to technically use a camera). You have to exercise more creativity with framing a story with less visual stimulation. Taking a picture of morning shit in black n' white probably isn't as interesting as in color; but with the right framing, lighting, and other factors, you can reverse that outcome.

#18 Posted by charlie_victor_bravo (1042 posts) -

@clonedzero said:

I hate black and white pictures. Sure they look artsy...

Remember that if you shoot medium format film and want to be in control of the development processes, b&w might be only way to go.

#19 Edited by deadmoscow (268 posts) -

@charlie_victor_bravo said:

Remember that if you shoot medium format film and want to be in control of the development processes, b&w might be only way to go.

To be fair, with a Hasselblad medium format digital back you've got a pretty massive amount of control over every step of the development process. I shoot and process RAW through Bridge --> Photoshop, and while it's a bit "artless" compared to developing and printing in a proper darkroom, I appreciate being able to tweak every last minuscule detail without compromising the original negative in any way. I do miss watching prints magically develop in a tray full of chemicals, though, that kind of feeling can't ever be replaced by scanners and hard drives and Wacom tablets.

EDIT: Whoops! Didn't realize you were strictly talking about film. Yeah, black and white is definitely the way to go if you want more control when developing film.

#20 Posted by Raven10 (1922 posts) -

@truthtellah: I think my point is more that anyone can share their photos online with the press of a button. Yea, that very ease means that finding the best pictures is becoming harder, but the difference in quality between your average Instagram photo and what is on display here is just night and day. When someone with as much skill and talent as this lady comes along you take notice, regardless of how many peers she would probably have today.

@deadmoscow: I absolutely agree with both of your posts. Honestly I'm not a huge photography buff but I was incredibly moved by these pictures. She manages to capture the emotions of these people as well as any photographer I have seen. It really is rare for a photograph to inspire some sort of emotional response in me, but these were just fantastic.

@themangalist: @clonedzero: To compare the average person's photos to these should be criminal. Really these are just fantastic in every way. I can't say I have ever seen a photo on Instagram or Facebook or any sort of social media site that moved me like these did. There is a reason she has gained so much fame. She is easily one of the top 5 street photographers of all time. It's only very rarely that you see someone with a talent like this.

@ghost_cat: I said she was the greatest photographer to never share a photo, not the greatest photographer period/full stop. I certainly don't have the expertise to even attempt to crown someone with that title, but I think my original statement has to be true or at least close to true.

#22 Edited by NinjaBerd (221 posts) -

I don't know that much about art, but those are some pretty damn good photos.

#23 Posted by Rorie (2987 posts) -

Somewhat Diane Arbus-y.

Staff
#24 Edited by Wrighteous86 (3823 posts) -

Shit, I think I work just down the road from where that picture with the horse was shot.

#25 Posted by Ravenlight (8011 posts) -

Only video games can be art. She should have made one of those.

#26 Posted by thomasnash (585 posts) -

Hmm. I'm really glad I stopped to read this. It's been a long time since I saw photography that really made me stop and ponder it for any length of time.

I was looking through the website that has a lot of her photos on it. It's interesting becuase a lot of them don't do a huge amount for me - in particular the photos of the poverty stricken children and so on and so forth. To me the greatest value these have is as historical document than as art, in that when you step back and think just how much of the corpus is made up of these photos and the process of street photography, you realise how many of these children she must have seen. They are technically very proficient, to the extent that i would find it hard to believe that she was an amateur - if it weren;t for the occasional shot which is just as boring as any teenagers instagram offerings - a shot of some pylons or a grilled window being something of a low point.

But where these photographs really come alive for me is when it seems like she was taking a photo just because something amused here, of which there seem to be several - maybe a quarter of the collecton - which are just so playful and wonderful; the shopkeepers shoes sticking out from under the window-blind, the old man smoking the cigar, another elderly man wearing ludicrously small shorts, or a fat man and a thin man sitting on a fence. The shots like these vary in technical ability - some of them are striking in their composition as well as their subject, others are more matter-of-fact - but what they all have in common for me is just an element of sheer joy that's hard not to be infected by. Really wonderful.

#27 Edited by Raven10 (1922 posts) -

@rorie: Absolutely. My first thought upon seeing them as well. She is also one of my favorite photographers.

@wrighteous86: I want to say that is Van Buren and Wabash as I lived on that street corner for nearly a year. Several of the shots seem to be on Michigan around that area as well. One of my favorite things about living in a big city is recognizing landmarks like that. I thought it was humorous in The Dark Knight that they had ferries on Lake Michigan. And the car chase scene was also shot on Wabash I believe.

#28 Edited by Sanj (2537 posts) -

I don't know much about photography, but the clarity of those shots are incredible for something taken using 1950's camera gear. Why is that?

#29 Edited by HaltIamReptar (2029 posts) -

I think there's something to be said for how impenetrable photography can (appear to) be. I have friends in the arts/entertainment and regular business folk alike, and I know literally no-one who is into photography unless they themselves are a photographer or are otherwise "arty". This is compared to similar artistic mediums (such as paint or sculpture maybe) where you might see a broader audience. Not sure why that might be. That's just anecdotal, of course. Could be dead wrong.

edit: by dead wrong I mean wrong by implying my observation is in any way meaningful

double edit: What's also interesting here is that I could see many artists, even very well respected ones, call Maier a failure as an artist. It's not about the fixation on fame, it's about creating meaningful expression. Having never expressed herself, is her work meaningful? To her it almost definitely was. However, having never shared her work with anybody, her art (up until this point) existed in a void. It couldn't provide anything of value to anybody but her. I think that's OK, but it's something interesting to think about.

#30 Posted by Jimbo (9988 posts) -
What's also interesting here is that I could see many artists, even very well respected ones, calling Maier a failure as an artist. It's not about the fixation on fame, it's about creating meaningful expression. Having never expressed herself, is her work meaningful? To her it almost definitely was. However, having never shared her work with anybody, her art (up until this point) existed in a void. It couldn't provide anything of value to anybody but her. I think that's OK, but it's something interesting to think about.

That was kinda my reaction too. I'd consider her a talented photographer, but I'm not sure if I'd think of her as an artist (or at least not while her work went unshared). Art is a means to an end; a way to express or convey something. If you choose never to show anybody then it loses its purpose.

Typically when people say they are making 'art for the sake of art' they mean they are motivated by the desire to express something, as opposed to being motivated by the pursuit of fame or fortune. I wouldn't consider creating something with the intention of never sharing it with anybody to be the work of an artist. Having something to say and the talent to express it is worthless if you choose to keep it to yourself. She was a great photographer, but she wasn't a great artist until her work was shared.

I don't think it's particularly fair to contrast this example with "today's society and our obsession with celebrity". There is a huge middle ground of artists creating and sharing art because they want to express themselves. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

#31 Posted by Raven10 (1922 posts) -

@sanj: I'd give two reasons. One they were developed using modern development techniques, and two, it was certainly possible to take clear shots like that in the 50's. It just takes a lot of talent and a really steady hand. I find it amazing more because these were shots just taken on the street, not ones that she spent an hour composing. It really is very, very impressive. But, yea, definitely possible for the time, just very difficult.

@haltiamreptar: I actually enjoy photography more than fine arts like painting and sculpting. I don't know a ton about composition or anything, I just really enjoy photographs that can capture a place or an emotion like these do. I mean you look at some of these photos and at least for me I feel like I can understand these people and this time. I guess it helps that I lived in Chicago so I literally have stepped in the exact location many of these shots were taken, and that really lets me connect with the changes (and lack of changes) from 50+ years ago. I mean the train tracks in some of those shots are literally exactly the same. Most of the building are exactly the same. A couple even are the same stores all these years later. So I think they are especially interesting to me, but I feel like anyone can appreciate the emotion she captured in her subjects. That is what really impresses me more than how well she captured Chicago in that era.

@jimbo: You know I was thinking after reading about this that we don't really know whether or not she shared them with anybody. Just because there are no prints around anymore, doesn't mean she didn't ever make prints. If you watched the trailer for the movie the entire fact that she had a locked door says to me that she might have had a darkroom which means she must have developed prints. Who she showed them to, if anybody will likely remain a mystery either until the film comes out, or if they couldn't find out, then forever. But I guess my point is that she could have made prints, shown them to some people and then destroyed them or something like that. Hard to know.

#32 Edited by HaltIamReptar (2029 posts) -

@raven10: That's your take on her photography, which albeit is a hell of a lot more valid than people who don't approach any photography on good faith that they'll get something out of it at all. You can talk all day about this or that art which is "universal" and that "anyone can appreciate it" but if someone doesn't already have a perception of that possibility, then it will be much harder for them to believe. Take the difficulty teachers have in teaching Shakespeare. I earnestly believe that he spoke of truths, but fuck if I can get many people outside of my world on my side. Were you arrested by her photography at first sight? You already liked photography. You already had the notion that photography could be arresting.

I'm on your side when you say her photography is beautiful and resonating, by the way. I really liked this one.

To me I think it says something about the isolation and social class of these beautiful women, but I can totally see how someone can look at that and go ew, just boring old women.

#33 Posted by Raven10 (1922 posts) -

@haltiamreptar: Shakespeare was brilliant. Anyone who says otherwise simply doesn't understand his craft. Hell, I can barely write a full sonnet, but he managed to write entire plays without breaking iambic pentameter. Even ignoring how brilliant some of his stories were, the craft put into the structure of the language, and the language he used itself is just immeasurable. Just some of the word combinations and the incredible puns and insults and so on. I really feel bad that people today are unable to appreciate Shakespeare. Truly his talent is unmatched.