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Vivian Maier: Unseen Work

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the press preview for the new street photography exhibition in New York City at Fotografiska, Vivian Maier: Unseen Work. The exhibit features approximately 200 of Maier’s works, spanning the 1950s to the 1980s, including vintage and modern prints, color and black & white, and Super 8mm films.

The exhibit does a wonderful job of explaining Maier’s influences and the evolution of her photographic (and eventually “motion graphic”) journey. Her use of reflections and silhouettes always stands out to me. With these motifs, she manages to insert herself into the images. She is both observer and subject.

vivian maier street photographer exhibit in nyc

Maier’s use of continuing motifs throughout her photography ‘career’ is more astounding when you realize that she never saw the majority of her photos developed. She created such an amazing and distinct visual style without the benefit of learning from her own work.

In the exhibit, you can also see her famous Rolleiflex and Leica cameras, which are in remarkable condition. Seriously, they look like they have been unboxed for the first time despite being more than a half century old. These cameras were cared for meticulously.

vivian maier's rolleiflex and leica cameras

Maier’s legacy, however, does not come without some controversy. Many refer to her as an ‘amateur’ even though the caliber of her work definitely puts her in the same category as the ‘greats’ of the street photography genre.

As a photographer, I am not sure how I feel about this statement. Technically, Maier’s work was ‘discovered’ and started getting attention online two years before her death when one of her storage lockers containing a massive hoard of negatives was auctioned off for delinquent payments. That brings up a whole other conversation on ensuring you maintain ownership of your negatives if you are using film, but that is a story for another post.

vivian maier central park new york city street photography

Maier’s work was going viral on the internet and she had no idea. Wouldn’t it have been a greater serendipity for her work to be discovered and celebrated during her lifetime? Maier left behind a catalog of more than 100,000 negatives, many of which had not even been developed at the time of her death. Why? Her financial stress and lack of stability KEPT HER from processing her photos.

I can’t shake this weird feeling about others taking “ownership” of her works. The long legal battle of who owns the rights, not the negatives, of Maier’s work is still unresolved.

Then again, I wonder how many similar collections may have been lost over the years and were never discovered. We are lucky to be able to enjoy the works of Vivian Maier.

Click here to get more information about the exhibition at Fotografiska which is running through September 29th, 2024. If you can’t make it to the show, I highly recommend the documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, or the book, Vivian Maier: Street Photographer. [Editor’s Note: Hey, those are affiliate links! If you make a purchase, I receive a tiny tiny commission which will go towards keeping this website running!]

If you do go to the show, please leave a comment below and tell me what you thought. Or reach out on Instagram, TikTok, or Threads and give me your feedback.

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The Nerdy Photographer

With more than a quarter century as a professional photographer, The Nerdy Photographer's goal is to spread knowledge and laughter throughout the photo industry. Please follow along on social media and subscribe to the podcast.

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