Vivian Maier

1926New York, United States | 2009Chicago, United States
Vivian Maier — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Vivian Maier, Self-portrait, New York, NY, May 5th, 1955, gelatin silver print, 40 x 50 cm, © Estate Vivian Maier, Courtesy John Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY

American photographer.

Vivian Maier was born in New York to a father of Austro-Hungarian extraction and a French mother, which explains her frequent visits to France in her early years. She began working as a nanny in 1951, first in New York and then in Chicago, where she continued to work until the 1990s. She died there in spring 2009.
An entire existence that went unnoticed until 2007 and the discovery of her photographic corpus: an impressive, dense, luminous and brilliant oeuvre, a treasure trove studded with over 120,000 photographic images, Super 8 and 16 mm films, a range of recordings, scattered photographs and a whole host of undeveloped films. This all-consuming passion, which was to become an almost daily occupation, ranks her alongside the most emblematic photographers in the history of street photography, on a par with figures such as Diane Arbus (1923-1971), Robert Frank (1924-2019), Helen Levitt (1913-2009) and Garry Winogrand (1928-1984).

The recurrent thematic cornerstones of V. Maier’s work provide the poise and balance of its architecture, defining from the outset, through those very first images, a carefully chosen lexicon, syntax and language to epitomise her era. The primary leitmotivs in her work are street scenes – her theatre of predilection – and working-class neighbourhoods – the hub of life. Through a galaxy of portraits depicting unknown figures with whom she could identify, and on whom, in a brief exchange of glances, she bestows a minute fraction of eternity, V. Maier succeeds in capturing a gesture, an expression, a situation, the grace of small, accessible things. The world of childhood she knew so well is there too, a world of freedom in which time is no longer relevant. She is also drawn by forms, rhythms, matter and objects, gleaned in the course of her lengthy walks.
In the 1960s, following her initial work in black and white, she turned to the musical harmonies of colour, playing with the specificities of this new technique to introduce variations on her photographic theme.
She also tried her hand at motion pictures, by means of a Super 8 or 16 mm camera, as though attempting to slow the pace of time and attune it to the rhythm of her gaze. What V. Maier filmed were not scenes but the movements of that gaze in space, constantly on the look out for the next photographic image.
At the core of the themes she explored, however, a crucial quest was at stake, which was to underpin the framework of her entire oeuvre: the quest for her own identity through self-portraits. These were many and varied, representing multiple typologies and ultimately becoming a language within the language, a form of mise en abyme of duplication itself.

This obsession with self-representation echoes a tradition that is unique to women photographers and dates back to the inception of the medium. In his speech to the Académie des sciences in Paris on 7January 1839, François Arago described the daguerreotype, an undeniably momentous invention, in the following terms: “Mr Daguerre has discovered a particular type of screen upon which the optical image leaves a perfect imprint; screens on which each element concealed in the image finds itself reproduced in minute detail and with unbelievable precision and subtlety.” On the same topic he added that this invention would prove invaluable to the arts, relieving painting from its primary vocation, that of reproducing reality.
What F. Arago failed to foresee was that the invention would also be of great service to women, who from the outset saw the need to embrace it as a vector for freedom. To V. Maier photography was precisely that haven of freedom, allowing her to touch upon an identity that had always been denied to her. Today she stands alongside the greatest icons of the 20th century in the history of photography. Not only has she become an emblem for women but for all the invisible people who see themselves in her.

Anne Morin

Translated from French by Caroline Taylor-Bouché.

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