Reviewed by Kenneth Tanaka
Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits by John Maloof
By now the legend of Vivian Maier should be familiar to most TOP readers. Maier was a Chicago nanny who also turned out to be an extraordinarily devoted and talented, but intensely secretive, candid "street" photographer. Since her basically posthumous discovery following a series of 2007 abandoned property auctions, Maier has become a de facto patron saint for amateur photographers worldwide. With each batch of newly disclosed work, Maier’s talent emerges as clearly equivalent, and in many cases superior, to many of the most celebrated street photographers of the 20th century.
Two books of Maier's work have been previously published, one each from the collections of John Maloof and Jeffrey Goldstein, the primary holders of Maier's work. Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits is drawn from Maloof's collection and, as the title implies, presents a specific genre of her images.
I jokingly referred to the images in this book as "selfies" (proclaimed this year's word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary). But none of the book's 89 images actually resemble the look-at-me snapshots that have become mainstays on social sites. Rather, Maier's "self-portraits" appear to be a mixture of carefully composed scenes and inadvertent self-inclusions, with a smattering of images taken by others with Maier's camera.
In her introductory essay, Elizabeth Avedon observed that the images lack hints of emotion. I agree. None have a happy or even a commemorative feeling, although many do appear to have been taken during Maier's travels. Vivian didn't seem to enjoy smiling. Several do convey a slightly narcissistic feeling, particularly those of her that resemble press portraits. But none impress me as images of a lonely person. Rather, they're images of a person alone. Many seem to be experiments in using herself in compositions.
Although a few of the images have been previously published, most will be new to your eyes. This is especially true of the final 30 images which are in color. Apparently Maier enthusiastically adopted color later in her life, after dabbling with it since the 1950s. Judging by the images in the book she had a nice eye for color compositions, too.
The book itself is the same 10x11" squarish layout as Maloof's 2011 book by PowerHouse. But I'm delighted to report that the print quality of images in this book, which is also published by PowerHouse, is exponentially superior to that 2011 book. In fact both the color and B&W plates look about as good as it gets in photobooks today.
(A Kindle edition is scheduled for release on November 26, 2013.)
If you're already hooked on following the discovery of Vivian Maier's work, as I am, buying this book is a no-brainer. But even aside from the contextual lore the plates in this book present an excellent study of possibilities for creative photographic self-representation. I know of no other book of such a study and for that reason alone it's worth the investment for dedicated photographers.
If you're in New York before December 15, 2013 you might want to visit the corresponding "Vivian Maier: Self Portrait" show at the Howard Greenberg Gallery.
©2013 by Kenneth Tanaka, all rights reserved
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Doug C: "Thanks for the tip. We just got in from seeing the show. Well worthwhile. Beautiful work. I would not have known about it had I not read this post."
Steve Barnett: "Ken writes, 'I know of no other book of such a study and for that reason alone it's worth the investment for dedicated photographers.' There is Lee Friedlander's book Self Portrait. Of course 'selfies' have been made by painters for centuries, so it makes me curious why some people feel uncomfortable about photographers taking it seriously. I think it gave Maier that excuse we all might need from time to time to explore idea's in a freer way, something that can be laughed off, but underneath there is an idea forming."
Mike adds: I was surprised to discover that The 2005 reprint of Lee Friedlander's Self Portrait is still available. Not only that, but Lee has reprised the idea, in a 2011 Yale Art Gallery title.