Artist Spotlight

Case Study: Vivian Maier and living in the moment.

By June 2, 2017 April 6th, 2020 No Comments

Reflecting on the Legends: Vivian Maier

It’s probably fair to assume that if you’re reading this, you’re as photography obsessed as me. I’m always shooting, always reading about new gear or the newest plugins, and I probably spend far longer than I should on Instagram seeing what awesome stuff people are constantly producing.

But sometimes our fast-paced super-connected world leaves us constantly trying to catch up with what’s new. This leaves us little time to look back and appreciate all the incredible work that has come before us. This is important; not only out of respect for the history of our field but because there is so much we can all learn as photographers from doing this.

Vivian Maier: A secret photographer

Today we’re going to look back at the work of Vivian Maier. For those of you who don’t know of Vivian, her story is rather unique. She was a live-in nanny, and during her life, no one knew she was a photographer!

She shot a huge collection of images but did this for herself. Only years after her death were her negatives discovered in some old boxes, and as it turns out, she was brilliant.

As a side note- I like this story specifically because it kind of pushes back on the +1 like culture that we’ve developed as artists. Vivian didn’t shoot for likes, she shot because it was her calling.

An incredibly well timed & playful self-portrait of Vivan. Look at that smile!

What can we learn from Vivian?

Well her photos are certainly well shot and composed. But there are thousands of photos on Instagram right this second that achieve those two things as well.

What Vivian excelled at is something that is often harder to find online these days: She had a really unique point of view on the world that was playful and felt personal to outside viewers! She had an incredible sense of ‘the moment’ – those quiet moments that happen all around us daily that altogether make humanity and life that crazy beautiful thing that it is. Certainly, as photographers, we can all benefit from learning from Vivian.

Perfectly timing as the balloon obscures the parent’s face. It creates not only a sense of mystery but a whole different relationship between the baby/adult.

The gift of a moment

What always strikes me with her work is it’s the kind of shots that are perfectly timed – one split second sooner or later and the photo would be nice, sure, but it wouldn’t be nearly as moving.

You’re being given privileged access to a very specific way of seeing and experiencing the world. That’s a gift. We all have our own perspective, that is totally unique to us, but we’re too often told to homogenize this so that we all feel/see the same way.

The job of the artist has always been to push back on that and to reveal the infinite possibilities of existence.

So many layers here – the woman reading the news smiling makes you draw an automatic connection to this man in the reflection. It almost implies he’s in her thoughts.

Oh the Irony:

Funnily enough, practicing getting better at capturing ‘moments’ as a photographer might even mean putting down the camera. Sometimes the viewfinder filters our experience of the world, and to really see a moment worth capturing, you need to be fully present and aware of the things around you.

What makes the bus ride you’re currently on, for example, totally different from every other bus ride you’ve ever been on. I guess Zen and photography are more closely related than we might’ve thought.

A perfect capture of the curiosity and troublemaking spirit of youth. Are these kids unsupervised? What’s in the box? What are they staring up at in wonder?

These images are rather understated, but they are hugely moving. They are not only a great lesson in the importance of being present as a photographer, but more broadly the importance of being present in life, as to not miss all these special, gorgeous moments that pass us by each day. Luckily, for those of us who missed them, we had Vivian to capture them for us.


Really gorgeous frame- but the little girl turning back to acknowledge the camera really brings this up a level.




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