Vivian Maier: Approaching Portraiture

IN: (Feb 24, 2018)In Depth

Chicago, IL, Spring 1963. Vivian Maier


Chicago, IL, Spring 1963. Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier photographed over 100,000 images throughout her lifetime, capturing a multitude of subjects that displayed a genuine interest in human nature, most often through the genre of portraiture. Her photographic oeuvre ranged from the 1950s to the 1980s, covering most aspects of American life during this time. Maier’s portraits in particular display an acute eye for body language and show her ability to record a range of emotions. The spectrum of expression observed across Maier’s many subjects reveal natural human emotion at its most raw; uninterested to troubled, contented to irritated. Chicago, IL, Spring 1963, is a photograph of an elegantly dressed woman, seemingly disgruntled that she has been caught in the middle of the street. Her perturbed expression is at odds with the photograph’s dramatic lighting and the woman’s glamorous attire. The subject stares directly into Maier’s lens and, by extension, makes eye contact with the viewer. This guarded engagement between subject and viewer adds complexity to the composition. The woman’s expression works to heighten the absurdity of the fur throw, paper bundle and fantastical, floral hairpiece.

Maier’s portraits are outwardly ambiguous and enigmatic, often leaving details open to interpretation. Florida, 1957 is similar in composition, yet depicts an entirely opposing emotive reaction to Chicago, IL., Spring 1963. Here, the subject presented does not appear to view Maier with suspicion or contempt, instead offering a rather softened expression of relaxed acceptance and a palpable sense of curiosity. Photographed in the midst of completing the simple task of opening his shop, the photograph records the beginnings of a smile gracing his face. This pregnant moment adds to the fleeting sense of a moment preserved through Maier’s camera. The candid nature of this portrait is also found in another photograph, Chicago, IL., May 16, 1957. Incredibly intimate, the sitter is placed at the centre of the composition, her forearm and hand delicately leading the viewer’s eye up to her cheek. Her soft expression accentuated by the generous folds of the sumptuous fabric of her coat. 

Vivian Maier’s portraits offer the viewer visceral insights into the reality of her subjects, purposefully imperfect and poetic. The everyday person caught her attention time and time again, and it is in her street portraits that we see Maier revealing the subject’s inner lives

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