I’ll cut to the chase with this review: Vivian Maier: Street Photographer is up there with my all-time favourite photography books. It's not just the quality of the images that impresses but appreciation for the remarkable efforts of John Maloof in bringing the world’s attention to a previously unknown artist in the space of just a few years.
The story of Vivian Maier is now well documented: a nanny who, unknown to anyone, took hundreds of thousands of photographs during her lifetime, only for them to be discovered in a Chicago lockup by Maloof after her death in 2009.
This book offers the briefest of glimpses into her world, focusing on her time in New York. As testified by others, her sense of composition and timing rivals the best street photographers of the modern era. Her images are emotionally loaded, with American symbolism throughout, making them accessible and intriguing in equal measure.
Shadow and light features heavily, as does a sense of comedy and tragedy. Awkward poses, odd characters, dry wit - Maier evidently had a terrific eye for finding quiet comedic moments on the streets. On the other hand there are shots that reveal an awful lot of despair: homelessness, desperation, frailty, and death. Some of her work has an abstract, slightly chaotic feel to it.
The limited amount of information we have on the artist’s life means that there are no filler blurb pages. You simply have the image as Maier would have seen it. Without the support of technical information or a narrative commentary about where and when the shot was taken, I found myself really studying every photograph.
If you need any more convincing about whether to buy this book or not then I would suggest watching the documentary film Finding Vivian Maier (2013). Maier was evidently a fiercely private individual. Suggestions of a difficult childhood abound and there is a sense of this darker emotional side in her work.
Whether you are into street photography or not, I would recommend purchasing Vivian Maier: Street Photographer in a heartbeat. Few collections of work have such a fascinating back-story and with the vast number of negatives still being processed I hope that a second volume will be with us in the near future.
Vivian Maier: Street Photographer
Edited by John Maloof
Powerhouse Books (2011)