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Tuesday, 11 January 2011


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Nice. The first photo calls to mind the Weston pepper photos in its convoluted forms. Too bad I am nowhere near Chicago.

I am on-the-run as I write this but felt the need to comment on Dave's review now. Having seen the show once myself I think he touched all of the bases very accurately.

The collection of images shown is very good and some are truly great --potentially iconic to future generations-- by any reasonable definition. But I just felt that there was much more, and better, that could not be shown. So I, too, felt just a tiny bit underfed.

VM's images of children are, indeed, very different than her images of adults. It's not surprising that her children images seem more engaged, given the apparently unanimous reports by her charges that she was a "Mary Poppins"-like nanny. Her images of adults are, indeed, quite detached and treat the subjects like zoo spectacles. But I, personally, like that very much. I'm not that interested in engaging with people as subjects, either.

So, gotta run now, but excellent summary of the show, Dave.

p.s. The whole topic of waist-level finders is one that deserves some separate treatment. It's a very different aesthetic and presents a remarkably different impression than today's all-standing-up snaps. Personally, I try to shoot low whenever possible.

I can understand your connection with the vagrant image and the Pieta; I share it. Granted there are vast differences--the Pieta is a sculpture of two figures, the madonna and the body of christ, and one is of mourning and this one evokes sadness and terror. But what they share is a similar configuration of legs! Take a gander: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8a/Michelangelo%27s_Pieta_5450_cropncleaned.jpg

As for Vivian's work, let's keep in mind that we are looking at a body of work that has never had the benefit of editing or culling; Nor does it have the benefit of dark room processing that Ansel Adams was ultimately famous for. Considering that, I'd say yes, she *is* one of the top street photographers of the 20th century. Or was.

I know this--my own body of work would be poo-poo'd as amateurish if viewed in its entirety. Take a stroll through Flickr, pick one fantastic image there, and then go look at that user's entire account. You'll see what I mean. Unless they've been religious about only posting their best work, you'll see image after image of crap.

We all have LOTS of mediocre images; It is unavoidable. What makes for a stunning portfolio isn't only having great photographs, but also hiding our mediocrity.

All the best,

I guess I find the reference to gear interesting, in that it does not really interest me. When one of Maier's pictures has an impact for me, it is not about the gear, but about the picture and its content. I wonder if this is why the pictures do not have the same impact for some people; if some people are trying to connect more with the technical aspects of the pictures.

I agree with Edie on the editing aspect as well. Looking at galleries of Maier's work I wonder at some of the choices, and I think it is unfortunate that Maier herself is not making those choices.

We lack Maier's own opinions on the pictures, which is a major lack.

We also lack time, history, hind-sight; we haven't had time to process, debate, and evaluate the work yet. It's all brand new to us. It's not that common for the world to encounter an artist's work all at once, in a lump (most of the examples have been cited in recent discussion, of course).

As for "the benefit of editing or culling", though, there have been decisions about which images to scan, and which to print, and which to hang for the show, by multiple people including real museum curators. The show is a tiny fraction even of the works so far scanned.

I would suggest that the show is benefitting from being printed now, rather than then, in some ways; good scanning, good processing, and good inkjet printing give results that can't be matched in the darkroom. (In B&W, which most of this is, the darkroom has advantages of its own, at least in some people's opinions.) I can't think the unprocessed film has benefitted any from sitting for years or decades, though.

Further similarities between The Pieta and The Vagrant: folds in the cloth of the clothing, the deadness of hands(although the Madonna's outstretched hand is gestural rather than static), and the implication of marble to the right of the figure evokes the marble of the statue; the juxtaposition of high emotion in a "rich" setting, i.e. the street view of an institutional building, I'm assuming a bank, and the architecture of marble in the shot of the Pieta I've linked to.

None of these things are an exact match, of course, which probably explains your puzzlement over your connection between the two. But the flavor is similar on many levels, Dave. Sometimes all it takes is a side-by-side comparison to articulate it.

BTW, thank you for sharing your thoughts--it's a long way from employee housing in Yosemite to Chicago, and I won't be making the trip.

Doncha love the internets?

at the risk of luring your readers away, here's my full response:

I find this comment curious:

“Her portraits of adults on the other hand are curious. There is a peculiar sort of neutrality to many of them …… that I find lacks the direct human connection that is so often the mark of truly great street photography.”

Check this work from a fellow Chicagoan generally considered one of the greatest of the 20th Century (talk about a cold fish!):


Joe Cameron

The "vagrant" photo puts me much more in mind of Rodin's "Fallen Caryatid" than the Pieta.

Those two kids, I think you could slip that into an Arbus exhibition and nobody would notice anything amiss. Most of Maier's photos that I've seen could similarly be inserted into a Robert Frank retrospective.

Great stuff.

I'm a very digital guy, but it's sobering to realize that no contemporary digital photographer is going to get this kind of late discovery, unless we get memory diamond or something soon.

I don't mean to be disrespectful, but the photo of the two kids instantly reminded me of John Tenniel's illustration of Tweedledum and Tweedledee in "Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There."

I also think we should give a lot of consideration to Ken Tanaka's comment about the lower angle of view you get from a twin-lens reflex. I noticed it right away, in all of these photos -- when you see somebody curled up on the ground, for example, instead of looking down at them, you're almost looking straight at them. It makes a big difference psychologically, and especially with the children's photos. There was once a photo book -- I don't remember the name -- of photos taken by children, and the striking thing about it was the point of view. You see a lot of kids head on...and a lot of adult legs. The world looks different from down there. I might also suggest that those people who have Panasonic G and GH series cameras, with the twistable LCD, try shooting some from the twin-lens position. It's easy enough to do, and quite steady, with the camera braced against your thighs.


One more on the waist-level finder & picture-taking lens of Vivian M.: standing adults are photographed from below, and children almost level with their eyes. Wouldn't that account (partly at least) for the different atmosphere of her pictures of children compared to those of grown-ups?

You read a lot more into the images than I can. Frankly, from what I've seen, her work is pretty pedestrian (compared, for example, to Helen Levit).

I've always been curious about the idea she didn't make any prints ... just shot the film. But the note to the photo lab folks about "re-do" seems to imply she did make prints.

Edie said,
“None of these things are an exact match, of course, which probably explains your puzzlement over your connection between the two. But the flavor is similar on many levels, Dave. Sometimes all it takes is a side-by-side comparison to articulate it.”

I agree, Edie, but I confess to being unwilling to so directly compare them. I think the associations I had were more subtle, having to do with the extreme contraposto of the vagabond’s body and in particular the, to the viewer, ambivalent “gesture” of his right hand. All of this heightened, of course, by the modeling of the photograph, itself.

Joe Cameron said,
“I find this comment curious:
‘Her portraits of adults on the other hand. . . .’
Check this work from a fellow Chicagoan generally considered one of the greatest of the 20th Century (talk about a cold fish!)”

Joe, looking at those Callahans in the Eastman collection I’d say that his style is wildly different from Ms. Maier’s. Look at the heavy chiaroscuro he often uses. As Ken Tanaka said, above, “Her images of adults are, indeed, quite detached and treat the subjects like zoo spectacles.”

Ed Gaillard said,
“The ‘vagrant’ photo puts me much more in mind of Rodin's ‘Fallen Caryatid’ than the Pieta.”

Ed, in its outward form I would agree with you but the overall feeling you get from viewing it is, I think, closer to the feeling in the Pietà.

“Those two kids, I think you could slip that into an Arbus exhibition and nobody would notice anything amiss.”

Hah! No kidding!


Ansel Adams wrote "Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop." If an exhibit displayed all of Adams' great images (and not all of his were great) how many would there be?

When serious photographic people have had the chance to go through all 100,000 or so of VM's images, how many great ones will they find? Maloof has said of the 10,000 or so he's seen, about 800 are strong images.

Moreover, who's printing the images and making the choices in Photoshop about burning and dodging and tone curves and the like? How many great images will be over looked for years because the curator or printer doesn't have the artist's vision for the image?
I believe VM will go down as one of the greats, in part because of her fine, touching, puzzling images and also because she apparently shot entirely for herself and without concern to anyone's tastes but her own and her own tastes were seemingly spot on. That's quite an artist.

As art, it's not about the gear of course; the gear is irrelevant.

But for photographers (who might want to replicate aspects we find pleasing), and for historians of art, the question of how much the technological capabilities, the gear, influenced the result seems natural, nearly inevitable (and specifically the duty of the historians of art).

Could someone tell me if the exhibition prints are inkjet or wet processed and what size they are ? It would be nice to think they re-emerged in the darkroom. The comments suggest that they are of a high quality, whichever the process. Just interested. Thanks. Makes me long to see a good exhibition - rather sparse here (outside London).

Hi Mike,

A LOT of Vivian Maier posts. I'm just sayn'. Considering history, I encourage everyone to withhold judgment for now and concentrate on reportage as we have here. Vivian's influence and importance will become clear by 'n' by. For now, let's enjoy this great story. It makes me wonder how many other "Vivians" there are out there waiting to be discovered.



Mark Walker wrote: Could someone tell me if the exhibition prints are inkjet or wet processed and what size they are ?

They are inkjet prints, 12x12" in size.

The more I see, the more I'm convinced that Vivian's work is truly wonderful...'plus one' for Ed Gaillard, the minute I saw the picture of the two kids, I thought: "Man, this looks like a mutation of Arbus' 'Twins', and her kid with the toy hand-grenade...".

The twin-lens work method really is quite interesting, ditto for anyone who uses a Hasselblad or Mamiya RB with the folding hood instead of a prism; I always like looking at the little screen, and not so much trying to use those cameras like a 35mm. I once photographed a band performance in a small venue with a Hasselblad just looking down through the folding hood, and one of the members said afterwards how benign it was 'cause it didn't seem like I was pointing some aggressive instrument at them. An interesting take...maybe for street-work, it's less confrontational?

The VM prints on exhibition here are all ink jet. (And actually quite good.) I think most of the prints are in the 13x19 sheet size range.

Looking down on TLR?

I am not sure this comment. May be she shoot like this but unlike SLR (or even Leica, which a bit better in this aspect), you need not shoot with your head down.

One of the major benefits of TLR (and Hassey) is that it is not necessary to do it throught the lens. You roughly frame it and then look up and talk to the ladies then shoot. Your eye can look a bit down to double check if necessary but as this is fixed lens (or non-zoom mostly), you sort of know.

In fact, photo taken with TLR and waist level finder is different in outcome, because you can talk and interact with the subject. (Same for 4x5 and 8x10, except that the subject normally just very stiff initally, as they mistakenly belive that the old camera has to have fix head for 1 minute. I have to explain that a 2010 family protrait in E6 under bright sunlight does not need to be like the b/w after WWII.) Many of my people subject relax after a while. They just have no way to know when I press the button. I can also press severl one.

Also, this style is even more suitable for TLR due to parallex (unless you have Mamiya), you have to guess the framing anyway. But the screen (in my Yashica 124g and what I recall of Rolleiflex and Mamiya) is a bit too dark, unlike the bright screen of Hassey that you can see better. Still, that is how one can do it.

In brief, you do not have to have your head down. May be the prof or she has done it that way, but at least one hobby guys like me is not, except for landscape.

Using a waist level finder is different. The act of holding a camera to the eye and pointing it at a subject sets up a particular photographer/subject relationship - scrutiny, amongst other things - whereas the WLF establishes the camera as an intermediary; subject and photographer share the device.

People seem increasingly wary of things being pointed at them. Probably with good reason.

Hey there!

Dave said: "At first glance it looks a little "Our Gang"-y"

At my first glance, I thought "Looks like childhood Tony Soprano and Silvio Dante on holiday in Canada."

@ Joe Cameron: Vivian Maier's work is very dissimilar from that of Harry Callahan's. In fact, their only real commonality is that some of their photographs were captured in the same areas of downtown Chicago. HC was, in fact, not really a "street photographer". Rather, throughout most of his career he occasionally used street scenes to pursue broader visual objectives. Everything I've seen of VM's work suggests that she was nearly exclusively a street life photographer and worked towards that genre's own ends. HC was not even a "Chicagoan". He actually hailed from the amateur photo clubs of Detroit and lived here for the time when he was teaching at the Institute of Design. From here he moved on to teach at RIT.

@ Dennis Ng: True, it is possible to shoot from various positions with a TLR. But there is every indication that Vivian Maier was mainly a waist shooter. The photos themselves present the strongest testimony; just look at them. The show also features several previously unpublished self-portraits of Maier, all of which have her cradling the Rolleiflex at her waist.

@ Bill Mitchell: To each his own eye, Bill. But, in fact, if I had to compare Vivian Maier's work to anyone's I would have to compare it most closely to that of Helen Levitt. The parallels are powerful. Both mostly photographed street life in their respective urban settings during times when there was actually street life (i.e. Before tv, affordable air conditioning, the Internet, and video games evacuated the streets.) Both photographed adults with a bystander's detachment but photographed children as if the camera was in the hands of an invisible fairy. (Both loved children but were not nuts about them when they grew up.) Their styles of photography are actually very similar.

Apparently I may not be alone in my observations of strong parallels between Levitt and Maier. Powerhouse Books, the house that published so much of Levitt's work, is reported to be the house that will soon publish a book of Maier's work.

The exhibition prints are ink-jet??!! Are you KIDDING? Why?

The originals are 6x6 Rolleiflex negs. Surely there's a darkroom person in Chicago who could have made exquisite wet prints, without the losses and distortions imposed by the scanning step.

Yeah, I know you can do Curves, blah, blah. Doesn't matter.

Gives me the same feeling as your Remuddling story.

Hi all,

I just got back from the exhibit. I would agree that it is well worth seeing if you can. Two galleries, about 80 images in all, the vast majority in b&w. The presentation is very straightforward -- a few artifacts from Vivian's life, some fascinating, others amusing, a bit of text on a handout for background, but the emphasis of the exhibit is squarely on the pictures, and they are all pretty strong.

I found about a dozen pictures that just knocked me out -- some of which I'd seen before online, several that were brand new to me. There are also several shots I've seen online and loved that were not included in the exhibit, and I have to admit I was a bit disappointed by that. Still, a dozen or so knockouts from a fairly small exhibit is a pretty good batting average for anyone.

I'd agree with other commenters that the inkjet prints were quite good, but I can't help wondering what the expert minisrations of a really talented darkroom printer might do for some of these images.

I, for one, can't wait to see more.


Paris, sorry you're unhappy they chose inkjet. I disagree with many of your premises there -- generally I find modern inkjet B&W, even, better than darkroom work (for color, inkjet wins solidly against RA4, but with dye transfer depends on the photo). However, I may not have spent enough time around truly first-rate B&W darkroom prints (I printed my own B&W in the darkroom for 20+ years, but would not rank myself first-rate). In particular I don't find any important losses or distortions introduced by scanning. I know the max density of inkjet tends to be less than the best darkroom papers -- but not very much, and I don't find it matters much.

What surprises me is that they printed them so small; given that they were starting from medium-format negs, and given that they were using inkjet printing already. I'm sure they thought about what size was appropriate, I have modest faith it wasn't just an unthinking default. I wonder if it was an artistic, technical, or logistic reason?

Thanks Miserere and Ken for answering my questions on the print and sorry for kicking off a small debate on the merits of light or darkroom prints - uh, that old chestnut.
I was a little surprised at the seemingly small size for a maiden exhibition, but not having seen them I can't assess the relative viewing impact of that. From what I have seen online many of the images struck me as wanting a larger viewing canvas. Don't get me wrong, I like small intimate prints if the subject is right and, similarly, huge prints to 'walk into': it struck me that both types could have been done for this exhibiton. I wonder if what Ken alluded to - perhaps being from 13x19 (A3+)sheets - was an economy measure ? I hope not. Finally, and not to drop on one side or another in the quality arguement, I hope that some wet prints are made in future, it would seem a more empathetic appproach.

Mark Walker

If you're living in Hamburg or nearby: Vivian Maier's photos will be exhibited here beginning end of January. More info:


I really don't want to argue with anybody. I don't dislike inkjet prints. In fact, I agree that color inkjet is just fine, although the standard for common analog color prints, the "C-print", sets a fairly low bar.

My only point was that there is a common, easy, high quality route for producing the highest quality black and white prints from black and white negatives. It involves only 1 generation, negative to print, instead of 2, negative to scan to print. If the practitioner is skilled, the print reveals everything that was present in the negative.

I've scanned about 500 b&w negs. If I scan the same neg on 2 different scanners, even if I try to sync the settings, the results vary. So if one is "correct", the other is "distorted". And I haven't gotten to the printing step yet.

In no case would I say that the negative was improved by scanning.

I guess that was my point really. The curators at the Cultural Center have an obligation to present Maier's work in the best way possible. The scanning process can't possibly improve the print. It's not easier. So why do it?

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