Friday, June 14, 2013

Vivian Meier: The Invisible Woman Revealed in 100,000 clicks.

Work by Vivien Meier

Work by Vivien Meier
Vivian Meier, self-portrait.

She worked as a nanny. Meier came from Europe, lived in New York and mostly in Chicago. She wore hats and men's shoes. Eventually, Meier went homeless, was rescued by three of her former wards, and died after a fall on the treacherous Chicago sidewalk ice. Died in anonymity. This would be another Eleanor Rigby story but for one thing: Her consuming passion, to which she devoted her life.

Meier was a street photographer. She saved and bought excellent tools to actualize her vision with, and used them expertly. A solitaire, working in near-total isolation, she spent every spare minute and dollar photographing, and traveling around the world to do so when she could. Including to Florida.
Work by Vivian Meier.

Vivien Maier self-portrait.

As many photographers do, she did many "selfies", self-portraits. We see Vivien, entranced by photography, reflected in mirrors, her shadow projected, over the years, the images telling us "this is who I am". On the left is one of those self-portraits.

Work by Vivien Meier
Her possessions had been placed in storage, amongst them her cameras, negs and prints. One hundred thousand exposures, not much by today's standards, but remember she had to buy film and get it developed on a nanny's income, and only got out to photograph on her days off. In Chicago, she went to Central Camera, one of the oldest camera stores in the United States, to have that done. A few salesmen remembered her coming in to drop off and pick up her film. Having passed away, her belongings lingered in their space, the payments lagged, and the trunks were put up at auction. Two buyers got the majority of them. One, John Maloof, realtor and historian, realized what he had, put a little of it up on the web, got overwhelmingly positive feedback, and went on to do books, films and exhibitions of Meier's work.
Work by Vivien Meier.

Color work by Vivien Maier.
She was not an in-your-face, confrontational type of street photographer. That kind of thing is ballyhooed as being de rigueur by today's internet/forum Kings, but her style was different. Her moment was Insightful, not Decisive. Street photography is one of the niche bastions of masculinity. The male Gaze has been questioned extensively in most forms of art, yet still rules in street photography. This is not to say that there aren't male photographers who have developed other ways of seeing, just far too few. This aesthetic dominates the history of the genre to the point that women are barely represented. Helen Levitt, Zoe Strauss, Diane Arbus, Graciela Iturbide, Mariana Yampolski, Lissette Model (whose influence can be seen in Meier's work), Flo Fox, Martine Franck and others. This is nothing in terms of numbers compared to male street photographers. Their dominance is reflected in the signifiers of the genre, what great street photography looks like.  This ends up determining who gets into collections, takes up wall space, makes it into books and into our heads.

VIVIAN MAIER - Untitled (two boys on beach), 1965
Work by Vivian Meier, in Florida.

Work by Vivien Meier
Vivian Meier was out of that box. Many critics initially said her work was not great. I think it was significant, at the very least for the history of women in street photography. Aesthetics change over time. She saw in a relational manner, with great empathy and compassion for the human condition. Socially, contextually, and not in a conventional dramatic/epic/spectacular way. In photography, she is at least one of the great outsiders.

The show is at Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, runs through this Sunday, June 16th. It is a must-see show, not so much to judge for yourself, but to see the expressed passion of a committed photographer.

Amongst her belongings was a note written on an envelope from Central Camera, in which Meier's rolls would have been received by their lab. It read: "Do best job -- so no redo -- customer is very particular."
“Do best job–so no redo!!–customer is very particular” - See more at:
“Do best job–so no redo!!–customer is very particular” - See more at:

--- Luis

Work by Vivien Meier

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