Rick Poynor | Exposure

Exposure: Striporama street scene by Vivian Maier

Striporama by Vivian Maier, c. 1953

Thanks to her extraordinary life story, the name of Vivian Maier is familiar even to people who take little interest in photography. Since 2011, the shadowy, picture-taking professional nanny, who sought no attention for her photographs, has been the subject of five books, two documentaries, and many exhibitions.

Discovered by casual buyers who acquired her pictures through self-storage auctions, Maier has bypassed the usual critical and curatorial processes by which reputations are established and cemented. MoMA has reportedly shown no interest in the roving photographer’s pictures. That could change in time, but the question of Maier’s place in photographic history is problematic because her huge body of work was created within a private bubble and no one connected to photography seems to have known about it. The fact that her oeuvre is now scattered between competing collectors makes it hard for critics and scholars to assess her archive and achievement fully, though attempts are under way.

How good was Maier? She took this picture with her Rolleiflex around 1953 (there’s no date or location in John Maloof’s Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, where it appears toward the end). That was the year the film Striporama—said to be tame, despite its raunchy title—was released. Maier often photographed children other than her charges and she documents juvenile experiences and states of mind with unsentimental candor. The film may promise thrill-seekers a fantasy escape into “gorgeous color,” but the wooden panels and sidewalk where these bored urchins pass the time of day are ingrained with dirt. One figure in the diptych created by the rectangular frames sticks her finger intently through the straps in her shoe, oblivious to the observer. There is grime on her big toe. The headstand becomes Maier’s sardonic rebuff to sexy adult posing. Shapeless dungarees erase the dancer with her legs waving in the air. The child, probably a boy, though we can’t be certain, was most likely indifferent.

It’s the dialogue between the cluster of heads and limbs that makes the picture so unsettling. The open-mouthed grimace of the upside-down boy rebukes the jovial burlesque man in the corner. The glamorous stripper unveiling her thigh looks frivolously self-absorbed next to the street waif swamped by mismatched grown-up cast-offs that give her an air of habitual neglect. It is one of the most quietly haunting images in Maloof’s book—not perhaps a great picture, but a fine one.

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Posted in: Exposure, History, Photography, Social Good

Comments [3]

Good points Rick. Vivian Maier is taken very seriously by many of the top collectors and dealers. As one who has spent a career observing unknown artists emerge from the shadows after death (so called “outsider artists”) to rival or surpass their counterparts in the mainstream arts, I believe her work will speak for itself. Once the legal vultures get through obtaining their pennies, more of her work will be seen. Collectors often drive the interest and market long before the museums do. Museums are famous for “missed” opportunities by short-sighted curators.
John Foster

Thanks, John. I don’t dispute the role that collectors play. But the issues I’m highlighting briefly here are the question of quality and how Maier will be placed in photographic history. A lot of the public admiration she has attracted comes from the remarkable nature of her story. I don’t think it takes us very far, especially now the story is so well known, to say that “her work will speak for itself.” Obviously it does (just as anything does), but when we go beyond the widely shared, generalized, initial amazement at the Maier mystery, there is surely a lot more to say about her work, including her achievement in particular photographs. In the foreword he wrote for Maloof’s book, Geoff Dyer notes that it is “important to retain a sense of critical perspective” and cautions, gently, against exaggerating the artistic value of Maier’s work, while he also questions the “quantity of quality”—in other words, how much of it is first rate? Dyer also points out, quite rightly, that because Maier’s work wasn’t seen in its time, her vision has not played a part in shaping how we perceive the world in the way that other photographers’ work has done (Lisette Model, Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus, and so on). Until scholars really get to grips with all the materials in her fragmented archive and whatever evidence it contains, we just don’t know to what extent she might have been aware of what other photographers were doing, or whether she produced similar work purely by accident. The legal complications that emerged last year over the estate and who owns copyright in the pictures seem likely to make these investigations even trickier.
Rick Poynor

From what I have come to know about this photographer, she has produced a great number of photographs not all of which are up to photographic art standards. Earlier in photographic history at the time she seems to have been active, journalistic shooting ratios were quite high. This leading to a great deal of selection work. In this particular example, the sexual nature of the picture may have been stimulated the common perception of "street photographers" as "street walkers". Need I explain further? As a documentary photographer of her social and urban environment a great many of the pictures are on a par with Walker Evans and Diane Arbus.
Tyllon Sierhuis

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