The tale of Vivian Maier and her outstanding street photography has taken on a life of its own. Although she may have never shared her work with anyone during her lifetime, she’s now regarded as one of the great 20th-century American photographers. Take inspiration from the colour work of her latter years and consider how you too can use photography to capture urban beauty and tragedy.
Just a few years ago, no one had seen Vivian Maier’s photography. Despite her decades-long commitment to capturing the chaotic buzz of Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, she kept her creative exploits a closely held secret. In her day-to-day life, Maier worked as a nanny for Chicago’s wealthy, taking the kids with her – and sometimes leaving them behind – as she explored the city streets with her camera.
“Maier’s photography went viral as the hidden nature of her talent was quickly revealed.”
Living a lonely and obscure existence, Maier never tried to sell her photography. But in 2007, she failed to pay rent on her storage space, leading to its contents being sold to cover the debt. The auction’s winner was John Maloof, a real estate agent who was writing a book on the history of Chicago. He could find nothing about the mystery artist until 2009 when Vivian Maier’s brief death notice appeared online. Upon sharing a selection of her black-and-white images on Flickr, Maier’s photography went viral as the hidden nature of her incredible talent was quickly revealed.
An obsessive hoarder, Maier kept several suitcases overflowing with random objects. Fortunately, this habit extended to her photographic archive, as her negatives and undeveloped film totalled almost 150,000 images. There were also dozens of 8mm and 16mm films, audio interviews and other bits of photographic leftovers. For a completely unknown artist who took photographs for pleasure rather than profit, the scale of Maier’s work and talent is staggering.
“Her images focus on the overlooked people and places that make up a heaving metropolis.”
Maier’s Masterful Use of Colour and Irony
Like many of the great street photographers, Maier’s work has a transcendent quality. Her images focus on the overlooked people and places that make up a heaving metropolis. They delve into the human condition and reflect the isolation she experienced in her own life. In almost every image, her subjects convey an unmistakable sense of humour, tragedy and irony, as Maier sought out meaning in the everyday.
As Maier transitioned into colour photography, this stylistic change was noticeable in more ways than one. From the 1950s until the 1970s, her work was captured in black-and-white using a somewhat cumbersome Rolleiflex medium-format camera. Looking down into the viewfinder at chest height, she was able to meet her subject’s eyes, giving her portraits a distinct look as she pressed the shutter. With the rise of colour photography, Maier swapped the square-format for the rectangular frames of 35mm. This shift gave her work a new perspective as she now held her camera at eye level. It also freed up her workflow, as the compact camera allowed her to move swiftly amongst the crowded streets.
“Her colour photography looked for beauty in life’s minutiae.”
Maier’s artistic gaze also developed when she began shooting in colour. Moving away from the sharp portraits of her earlier work, her images became increasingly abstract as she began capturing people out of focus or only partially in the frame. If there’s one recognisable constant in Maier’s work, it’s how she always played the role of a keen observer. Her images stalk people from behind or capture the precise moment when they focus on something just outside the frame.
Her colour photography looked for beauty in life’s minutiae, like poignant street signs or a couple discreetly holding hands. As Joel Meyerowitz once described Maier’s work, this was her way of documenting the city’s moments of “generosity and sweetness.”
Capture the City Like Vivian Maier
Below are some tips for incorporating Maier’s street photography techniques into your own work.
TAKE A CAMERA EVERYWHERE
Maier’s commitment to taking photographs was truly impressive, considering the volume of photos found in her archive, she must have used her camera practically every day for decades. Plus, everything was shot on film rather than with the luxury of our high-capacity digital cameras.
These days, almost everyone lives a busy life. But there are always opportunities to take photos – even if you just use your phone. Document how your daily journey to work shifts throughout the changing seasons or take portraits on your lunch break. If you take a camera everywhere you go, you’ll find yourself being more creative, more of the time.
SHOOT A SCENE & MOVE
If you glance over Maier’s contact sheets, she rarely took more than a couple of shots per location. And if she did stick around for multiple frames, she always changed up the perspective she was working with. If you’re using digital, try to avoid shooting more than you need. While it’s always good to get the perfect shot, if you limit how many frames you take at each setting, it will help you plan out your shots and produce a high-quality series.
GET CLOSE & CHAT
Many of Maier’s images were captured at close range. In some photos it seems like her subjects often didn’t notice her, as she inconspicuously took the shot from chest height. In other photos, people look right into the camera, with Maier likely striking up a conversation to get their attention. Don’t be afraid to ask a stranger if you can take their photograph. It can lead to more personable images and improve your ability to shoot quickly and effectively.
KNOW WHEN TO SHOOT COLOUR OR B&W
An interesting aspect of Maier’s work is that she keenly adopted colour photography when it became available. This is in contrast to many legendary photographers of the time, who associated colour photography with the commercial world and subsequently ignored it.
In your own work, learn the benefits of the two styles so you can use them effectively. For example, black-and-white photography can draw special attention to contrast, shapes and lines. Meanwhile, colour is effective for capturing specific moods, as we typically associate warm or cool images with emotions like joy and sadness.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF SELF-PORTRAITS
For someone who had such little interest in chasing the limelight, Maier took a lot of self-portraits. Throughout her work, you can find her pictured either partially or directly in the frame, as she regularly appears in mirrors and reflective shop windows. She also used her own shadow to cast a silhouette across numerous shots. Think creatively about how you can do the same to add another dimension to your images.
REFLECT ON YOUR IMAGES
With Maier keeping an astounding amount of work she created during her lifetime, she was able to constantly reflect on her technique and subjects. You can do the same with your own work by building an archive instead of simply deleting everything you don’t like. This way, you can learn from your mistakes and make adjustments, helping you produce more images that match your creative vision.