You Can Never Know The Importance: Vivian Maier and Street Photography

Sometimes I have a hard time with the label "street photography" and find the fact that it receives its own subcategory in the art form of photography to be a little trendy.  I have nothing against shooting random people on the street (with a camera) or discovering cool candid views to document. But I am not sure it is something that rises to the level of a form of photography other than editorial. Of course, it may be one of the most important types of editorial photography, and the fact that we don't even know how important many city and public images are until decades later makes it all the more intriguing.

The famous case in point is, of course, Vivian Maier.  I won't dive deep into her story which is very well documented on the intergalactic web, but Vivian worked as a nanny in New York City and Chicago in the 1950's during which time she took thousands of photographs. From what we know, she did not share them with anyone.  She stored the negatives in a locker that was sold off later in her life to pay for delinquent bills--part of a repossession so the story goes.  The photos were discovered in 2007 when the trunk was purchased at a thrift auction by John Maloof--who has turned her body of work into a company and brand which sells very expensive limited edition prints and produces collectable books.

Vivian Maier would be labeled an amateur street photographer if she was producing this work today. A really good one. However, to many, she has quickly become one of the most important editorial photographers of the early 1950's. In other words, her images are far more important now than they were in 1950. 

I adore some of her self portraits and the historical importance of her vast body of work is stunning. Collectively, these images are an archive of everyday life from over 50 years ago--of streets now changed, of advertising and cultural markers long since left for quaint, and of cities in the midst of development and re-development.  And sometimes the emotional photos with a unique point of view and those of historic significance are one in the same.  It may have been street photography in 1956, but many of Vivian's photographs are irreplaceable editorial images of a moment in time in America.  


The entire idea of images gaining importance over time makes you realize the vital nature of your own family and personal editorial photographs--the snapshots of you in front of a house that no longer exists, or in clothes that tell a story of a culture that is no longer current.  You never know the significance of some images until they have gathered dust in a chest for a few dozen years.

What do you think of Vivian's work?  How do you feel about the purchase and launch of her images by Maloof?  Do you really care what a photographer's work is labeled?

Vivian Maier