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Questinia On January - 8 - 2011

She worked as a nanny and she may be one of the greatest street photographers of the mid 20th Century.

She was an enigmatic woman who took pictures in synchronicity with the time and flavor of Robert Frank.  But she didn’t seem to print any of her work, it all being left as part of “the wheel” that turns after death eventually to be bought at auction by an unsuspecting 20-something.   She used a Roloflex and must have been able to use this complex camera fast.

“Vivian came here from France in the early 1930’s and worked in a sweat shop in New York when she was about 11 or 12. She was not Jewish but a Catholic, or as they said, an anti-Catholic. She was a Socialist, a Feminist, a movie critic, and a tell-it-like-it-is type of person. She learned English by going to theaters, which she loved. She wore a men’s jacket, men’s shoes and a large hat most of the time. She was constantly taking pictures, which she didn’t show anyone”.

~ from the blog site of John Maloof the man who bought about ninety-percent of her 100,000 negatives.

10-minute video documentary on Vivian Maier.

Categories: News & Politics

Written by Questinia

In the medical arts in NYC

35 Responses so far.

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  1. foodchain says:

    Hi Questina. The range in these photos is wonderful==not just contrasts but everything! What a gift of art

  2. SallyT says:

    Q, I enjoyed these very much! Thank you for sharing and introducing her to me. The shadows and shapes only really appear in black and white. I think I can count on one hand the shots I have gotten that are worth showing anyone. Of course, they were purely accidents/luck. Nothing based on skill. It is a shame that she didn’t see her work appreciated.

  3. SueInCa says:

    thanks for sharing these. I love black and white photography. When I was taking photography we went to take pictures of US Steele at night. By using a tripod and different f stops you can create some really amazing photography. I have always preferred black and white to color. Something about the starkness of it seems to capture the subject more clearly or can put the subject in shadows as well. Of course I never used the type of camera she was using and am not sure how good I might have been not using the modern convenience of 35mm cameras. I enjoy looking at different photographer’s works. Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, Margaret Bourke-White were all great photographers.

    • choicelady says:

      Well Sue! I never knew that about you! I helped document one of Bethlehem Steel’s plants, so we share that interest. We;ll talk about it soon I hope!

      Her work is stunning. She reminds me a bit of Louis Hine (though her work is somewhat better quality due to better equipment) and especially of Milton Rogovin, a Buffalo, NY photographer who did studies of the lower west side of the city, Black churches, miners around the world, and yes, steelworkers. He died last year, age 103. He photographed almost to the end.

      Her work is rich in its honoring of the people in her photographs just as they are. The light is gorgeous, but the people are all very differently recorded, and that’s unusual. Some look straight on, some are inert, some don’t even know she’s there. That is extremely unusual in what is essentially a portrait photographer, albeit more like Rogovin’s work, ordinary people. Unlike him, she treats each subject as unique and reveals that in the highly different poses. Very interesting woman, very unusual eye.

      Thank you, Ques, for sharing this. I’d briefly heard about her on the radio, but I never have seen her work before. This is a real gift to us!

  4. AdLib says:

    Q, these are marvelous! And what a remarkable story of the artist.

    Hope it’s okay to have this excuse for sharing one of my favorite photographers, Elliot Erwitt:

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    • choicelady says:

      I love the little boy and baugettes on the bicycle! Really HATE the little boy and the gun -- given the time, it’s a gut wrenching reminder of lynchings. Not sure what lies in the photographer’s mind! Creepy -- and probably exactly the point?

      Some of this feels very much like Magritte’s surrealist paintings. Amazing stuff. Thank you, AdLib!

      • AdLib says:

        Elliot Erwitt is a brilliant photographer with both an incisive and playful/comedic eye.

        Indeed, the point of the child with the gun was very much what you felt, IMO.

        And I too love the surrealist sensibility of Erwitt! So pleased to share one of my faves with you and others.

    • Questinia says:

      I’ve never seen these Adlib, they’re great!

  5. Khirad says:

    I despise photographic geniuses. I try, but some are just born with a whole different eye to the world. Sure, there’s superior technique, and a knack for timing, but that can’t make up for inborn genius. And the lighting and reflection off the puddles -- I’ve never been able to pull that off just right. Takes messing with aperture, film speed and all that stuff on a 35mm, and I still haven’t really figured out all the bells and whistles of my digital -- let alone how to work them quickly at a moment’s notice. One day I’d like to shoot black and white again. There’s just something about a darkroom and the stank of the processing chemicals that take me back to a good place.

    The shadow man’s hat (I assume to be her own) hovering before the bikini clad woman was ominous, and many of the rest had a sad, beaten elegance to them. And to consider this was all without darkroom magic, but straight off the roll?!

    • choicelady says:

      Khirad -- as one who remembers well your smashing photos from your long and wonderful trip, I’d not be so hard on you!

      One of the key differences is depth of field. Modern cameras just do not have it, and digital is worse. I worked with a government documentary photographer who carried an old plate tripod-mounted camera because no other would give him the richness of detail in a complex setting. He was documenting historic industrial sites (Jet Lowe is his name -- you can still buy his only book I think) and needed that detail. So don’t dis yourself -- think about finding an older camera with a deeper field, then go black and white, too.

      But first -- find someone who knows how to develop pictures! Or learn to do it yourself. Even I can, and I pretty much suck at everything technical! Developing and printing is as much fun as the taking, IMHO.

      Working with longer lenses and older cameras gives you a huge range of opportunities to play with all that -- light, depth of field, texture. Try it! You’ll find it’s an entirely different experience. And as wonderful as you were with the color photos, you’ll be boffo with the B&W and the right camera.

    • Questinia says:

      Straight off the roll. I have spoken to photographers about her and they are in agreement with you. Genius is genius, to be sure, but the camera she used is so complex; she needed to look into a view finder below her, look at the image which was in reverse (its mirror image), do the f-stop, lens, etc…, that she was a technical whiz too.

  6. escribacat says:

    Gorgeous photos, Q. Thanks. I’ve never heard of her before. I’m curious — why do you think she’s like Dickinson? I also have a confession — I’m an English major (MFA as well) and Dickinson is one poet that I have never grasped. I’ve read her poetry, thinking maybe there’s some missing link in my brain that makes me unable to get her. But I try and I still can’t make head or tails out of her poetry. But these photographs, I get viscerally.

    • Questinia says:

      The mystery. The domesticity. The single woman obsessed. The economy of words and ingredients in an image expertly sculpted. A frailty and an immense strength.

    • Khirad says:

      I always liked much of her stuff, especially “One need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted”. It’s kind of too dark for today though.

    • Chernynkaya says:

      E’cat, I never entirely “got” Dickenson either. But I think Q’s reference has to do with the fact that bulk of Dickenson’s work was only published after her death, as was this artist’s.

  7. PatsyT says:

    Thank you Q!
    It is wonderful to see proof that the creative sprit can thrive under so many circumstances.
    Beautiful, fascinating, important images.
    We needed this today.

  8. kesmarn says:

    This Is My Letter To The World

    This is my letter to the world,
    That never wrote to me,--
    The simple news that Nature told,
    With tender majesty.
    Her message is committed
    To hands I cannot see;
    For love of her, sweet countrymen,
    Judge tenderly of me!

    Is it just me or is there something of a physical resemblance, too?


    • Khirad says:

      Classic. I can’t explain why, but her poems have their own internal harmony. They’re just brilliant. I mean, their was a general 8-6-8-6 thing going on but a really subtle fluidity to it that transcends normal rules.

      In the same way that you can’t always pinpoint just what it is that makes a photograph excellent.

  9. Chernynkaya says:

    Gee! Thank you, Q, for bringing Maier’s work to my attention--I’d never seen it before! I love street photography, and she has a touch of the Arbus in her too, doesn’t she? But just a touch. I like the sleeping fellows and that masterpiece of the man walking with two kids.

    I confess. I have the Dickensian fantasy that all my work will be acclaimed posthumously, since I’m too chicken to show it or publish it now.

    [note to son and husband!]

    • whatsthatsound says:

      btw, Cher and Q, I’m pretty sure the walkway in the picture you mention is Riverside Park, which runs along the Hudson River on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I used to take that walk from my apartment to my boss’ place in the morning and back in the evening. Always a joy.

    • Questinia says:

      I’m just hoping someone decides to buy my entire opus un-broken from the Salvation Army. Someone’s gonna be a very lucky person or a person with a lot more junk in the attic.

      I wonder what she was thinking when she was shooting and not printing. She must have been more into the process than the editing. She is a mystery.

      Definitely Arbus (the urchins) but she really reminds me of Robert Frank.

      • Chernynkaya says:

        I can see printing the photos and not trying to get them published, but not printing? That would be like composing music in your head, but foregoing notation. But even if you composed music in your head, you could “hear” it-- like Beethoven. Not so with photos-- how’d she know the exposure was what she wanted? Maybe she read Sontag and decided the photo voyeuristic? (But her photos ARE voyeurism.) So, maybe the process had the meaning--as you posit--and she didn’t want the photo to level all the meaning. It is very intriguing, and we’ll never know unless there is a hidden diary somewhere.

  10. whatsthatsound says:


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