Abstraction in the Work of Vivian Maier

Working through the 1950s into the 21st century, Vivian Maier is known for her wide array of street photographs, capturing candid moments within the bustling cities of New York and Chicago. Favouring the use of a Rolleiflex camera, Maier visited and revisited historic landmarks, downtrodden suburbs, and well-frequented hotspots, racking up a body of work comprising over 150,000 negatives. Her figurative photographs, produced in monochrome with an intense level of detail, are often infused with a unique depth of understanding, warmth, and playfulness that pair casual transient moments with raw human emotion. Traversing through the streets of New York and Chicago, Maier explores two cities defined by an uncontrived freedom. However, within her oeuvre of ephemeral moments and fleeting introductions, Maier occasionally used her camera to hone in on abstract details of the cities she frequented. Produced in far fewer quantities than her figurative works, Maier’s mysterious abstract photographs deserve a closer analysis.

Lacking a distinctive primary focus, Maier abstracted images do not immediately exude the same personality and warmth that Maier’s photographs of mundane human connection do. It is far easier, for example, to relate to an image of two women gossiping, or a young child grasping its mother’s hand. Additionally, without a meaningful subject to latch onto, the viewer is left with the task of deciphering the image’s content alone. However, this is where Maier’s skillful use of detail and colour come into play. An image dated to September 1956 reveals patterns of soft grey patches of wallpaper and exposed brick, offset by inky black shadows. Sharp, intertwining lines splice the composition, overlapping in a geometric puzzle. The scene is disorienting, with its initial scale entirely unclear. Upon first glance, the photograph appears to depict a bird’s-eye view of an expansive concrete courtyard, seeming even larger due to its lack of inhabitants. In reality, the image depicts the side elevation of a neglected building. This is made clear by a small advertisement for a commercial lighting company in the bottom left corner of the photograph. While Maier’s emphatic use of rough textures, heavy lines, and contrasting patterns create an enthralling picture plane; the artist chooses to leave a distinctive stamp of humanity within this image.

So too, another undated photograph follows a similar trajectory. The composition is dominated by hundreds of uniform, narrow slivers of light shining through a pair of window shutters. The repeated pattern, combined with the contrast between the dimly lit room and the luminescent outdoors, creates the sense that the viewer is occupying an otherworldly space. The viewer exists behind a partition, excluded from the bright occurrences documented on the other side of the window. Banished within the dark room, the viewer is able to witness ghostly suggestions of everyday life. An arm and a torso are partially visible, alongside obscure patches of unrecognisable shapes which blend into a pool of complete darkness at the bottom right of the composition. Pinpointed in the centre of the scene, the photograph displays a hint of a woman’s face, seemingly snatched as she brushes past the window in a fleeting moment. Amongst the voracious use of pattern, this woman’s face stands out, anchoring the photograph with vulnerability and a gritty veracity.

Vivian Maier’s abstract photographs reflect the story of an artist struggling with their creative identity. Maier famously kept her artistic talents quiet, choosing to store her thousands of negatives in storage lockers which were eventually discovered after her death. Intensely guarded and private, fame found Maier posthumously, and her steps in revolutionising street photography are now widely celebrated. Her abstract works reveal the sides to her personality experienced by those who knew her intimately. Inquisitive, daring, even confusing at times, these images paint a picture of the streets of New York and Chicago from a unique angle. Maier explores undiscovered, secretive pockets of the cities, elevating their banality with aesthetic subtlety. Principally. Maier affords her abstract photographs with the same care and consideration of her figurative works, maintaining a distinct level of human connection throughout.

Explore More