What you can learn from Vivian Maier

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Steve Pressfield wrote in a recent blog posting:

A practice is lifelong. A practice promises no nirvana. The whole point of a practice is that we discover meaning (and define ourselves) in the act of struggle and the expression of aspiration.



I've been thinking about Vivian Maier recently. There's a new exhibit of her self-portraits and a new book on its way, which I mentioned in a previous post on my blog. I keep coming back to a question that conntinues to nag me: “What kept Maier going, week after week and year after year, developing her art to the level of grand master of street photography, without seeking any apparent support, feedback or recognition from critics, curators, publishers, gallery owners, collectors, or camera club members?”


Employed most of her life as a nanny, she carried her camera – and used it – on her time off and on vacations. She produced at least 100,000 images that we know about, in the pre-digital age of roll film. I've been told by someone who makes his living curating photography that she had a remarkably good hit rate for creating decent images per roll of film. She left thousands of pictures on unprocessed film, only now being developed by those who acquired them after her death in 2009.


From what I've learned about Maier, she appears to have been strong willed, independent, and self sufficient. There is no evidence she continued with formal art education after initially starting out in photography. But she persisted, day in and day out, to perfect her craft by constant practice.


She was a collector of articles and clippings, and I have to imagine she also made liberal use of the volumes of photographic and art books in the public library. No doubt, she was highly self critical of her own work, and probably would not have spared others her honest opinion of their work if they ever had an opportunity to seek it. My impression is that she was proper and decorous at all times, but spoke her mind when invited to do so.



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Through her photographic images she spoke in a clearly articulated voice. Viewing the scant assortment of her pictures that have seen the light of day so far, one gets to know her as an unintimidated individualist capable of expressing what she takes from her world through her art. She was not a random snap shot shooter. Her interests were primarily people, shadows, and geometry. Among her subjects were social pretense, poverty, and innocence. Though of modest financial means, she did manage to travel internationally on several occasions, and it is interesting to compare images from her travels to the ones she amassed on the streets of Chicago and New York.


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From what little I have been able to learn about her life, and from much more that her photographs have shown me, this is what Vivian Maier teaches me:

  1. Practice is more important than product. Maier always seemed to have a camera with her, but accumulated hundreds of rolls of exposed but unprocessed film.
  2. One develops and advances in the craft of photography by going out and doing it, not by talking about it.
  3. Self-insight and self-criticism can be an effective way to stimulate self-growth, as long as it isn't self-delusional.
  4. An audience, a market, a brand were irrelevant to achieving what Maier achieved.
  5.  Taking a lot of pictures won't in itself assure sensitivity and mastery. Maier left behind at least 100,000 analogue images. Today, with digital technology, and the negligible cost per image, a photographer over a similarly long lifetime might leave behind a million or more images. What distinguishes Maier is how many of her images are very good compositions and tell interesting stories. Quantity does not assure quality. Mastery of the craft, sensitivity to the subject, and having something to say that's worth listening to are what characterize the best images.
  6. The best lesson for the artist might be: Don't quit your day job.


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I can only speculate how different Maier's work would be had she been active in a photo club, submitted to a portfolio review, sought representation by a gallery, or tried to make money with her camera. But I'm confident she was not the sort of person to heed fools' advice. So many of her images thus far shared with the public reveal a solitary but confident individual comfortable moving through crowds, engaging with strangers, contemplating reflections and spending time in shadows. Most of all, they reveal a person who is most freely herself when engaged in her chosen pursuit of photography, defining herself through the images she creates, and relaxed in the attentive pursuit of her evolving photographic voice.


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For those of us who photograph because it's the only way we know to artistically express our reactions to the world that surrounds us, for those of us who will never make a living with our camera, for those of us who see best with a camera in our hand, Maier gives us the inspiration to continue. It is possible to work alone and unknown, with passion, craft, and brilliant creativity, for only the personal satisfaction that comes from the practice of something that deeply touches our soul.


Enormous gratitude goes to John Maloof and Jeffrey Goldstein, who acquired the photographs, negatives, unprocessed film and personal items from Vivian Maier's storage locker, recognized the treasure they possessed, and have undertaken the effort to bring to the public the artistic work of Maier's lifetime.


Maloof and Goldstein have placed galleries of some of Maier's images on the web, here and here.



About J. H. Dricker

Jim dricker[J]im Dricker is an Atlanta based photographic artist who incorporates photography into his personal spiritual practice.  He regularly posts on his blog.









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  1. Pingback: (F/8) Photography | 5 great books to give to a photographer

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