When the Irish rock band U2 released the song “Where the Streets Have No Name” in 1987,
singing and playing against the anonymity of divided and divisive societies, where one’s street
address, accent, skin color, gender, mental state, or clothing can determine how we value that
person’s life and her personal achievements, an unknown female photographer was taking
what were probably her last images in the streets of Chicago at the end of a very long and
prolific pursuit of a documentary practice.
Some 35 years earlier she had started out on the streets of New York—self-taught but with great talent, drive and persistence—photographing people and the streets in instant icons. Her work can stand next to the greats of 20th century street photography. In fact, many of her images are reminiscent of photographs we have seen from Lewis Hine, Ilse Bing, Lisette Model, Dorothea Lange, August Sander, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Louis Faurer, Diane Arbus, Weegee, Lee Friedlander, or Joel Meyerowitz, to name a few. She seems to have channeled them all, even those whose work she clearly preceded,
in what New York Times critic Roberta Smith calls, “an almost encyclopedic thoroughness” in
summing up “the history of 20th-century street photography.”
Her own name, Vivian Maier (1926-2009, American), ought to be included in the annals of street photography. The issue was that all of her images remained hidden from public view until the very end of her life. Until then, nobody was even aware of the quantity and quality of her work. In fact, she herself did not even realize that her photographic output, some 100’000 negatives, had been discovered two years before her death. She died believing that her life’s work was still locked away in boxes upon boxes amongst her belongings in a Chicago storage place – that it was
“[sheltered] from the poison rain” (U2).
Most of the staggering number of images have yet to be made public. Looking at the known contact sheets of her negatives, containing very few multiple takes of any one motif or subject, one realizes the incredible frequency of extraordinary photographs per film roll. In pure mathematical terms, she exposed about 12 frames, or one roll of medium format film per day, every day for about 40 years. Given that only a few hundred images taken by Vivian Maier currently circle the globe in exhibitions and books, it seems that we can still anticipate an enormous quantity of future classics by her.
The sheer number of iconographic images produced by a single photographer who had to work full-time for a living as a domestic help and live-in nanny is mind-boggling. What we can assume from looking at Vivian Maier’s known photographs is that she often wandered nameless streets on her job and off, exploring the world around her extensively with the camera on these detours, a practice not unlike what the Situationists had termed dérive. She was an equal opportunist, portraying people from all walks of life, yet with the critical mind and eye of a politically conscious observer. The unedited sequence of images on each roll of film often reads like beautiful storyboards that follow her through the streets and the days in her life. Many of her images have entered our collective memory by now. Her best photographs will stay with us forever and will remind us about the humble nature of pursuing truth on the streets with a camera. It is hard work that rarely pays off.
In 1987, U2 sang:
“I want to run, I want to hide, I want to tear down the walls, that hold me inside. I wanna reach
out and touch the flame. Where the streets have no name.
Vivian Maier has done that.
– Daniel Blochwitz