9 Things You Can Learn About Street Photography From Vivian Maier
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Vivian Maier is my favorite photographer. Not only because of her work in photography, but because of the life she lived.
From the early 1950s to 2009, she worked as a nanny in Chicago and New York, and shot street photography on the side. In this time, she's known to have shot over 100,000 negatives.
To learn more about her, check out the documentary Finding Vivian Maier.
I want to share 9 reasons Vivian is my favorite photographer, and perhaps why she should be yours, too.
1. Keep a Secret
This is, perhaps, the most touching thing about her.
She spent the majority of her adult life, taking what some might call the best street photos of all time, only to have shown them to no one.
In 40 years she made five prints and profited not a single cent.
Because photography was her dirty little secret.
It was her way of observing the world around her.
And because she didn't sell her work, she had complete creative freedom over it.
Vivian Maier's work is a reminder to shoot what you enjoy.
2. Take One Photo and Move On
She's one of the few great photographers whose contact sheets we have access to.
From her contact sheets, we can make out that she generally took only one picture of a scene.
I'm particularly moved by this way of working.
She shot with film (which means she didn't need to use Lightroom presets like these).
And it goes without saying that shooting with film had a great impact on her skill as a photographer.
It forced her to be more thoughtful.
She did the thinking beforehand, so that she could click the shutter only when it was absolutely necessary.
But Viv's photography was a microcosm of her life. It was paradoxical.
And while it's true that she often only took one photo of a scene, she's also been known to use a whole roll of film in just one location.
What does this mean for you?
By taking the time to think about the shot you want, you can hit the shutter less and create much more thoughtful photographs in the process.
3. Frame Things Up
If you've been doing photography for some time, you might know that one of the basic guidelines for creating an interesting composition is to find a "frame within the frame."
Vivian roamed the streets of Chicago and New York, hunting for squares, windows, and mirrors in which to frame her subjects.
4. Selfies Are Okay
I remember my reaction to seeing Vivian's self-portraits for the first time. In complete awe, my jaw dropped.
To me, she took the selfie game to a whole new level.
Her self-portraits are simple, yet demonstrate a particular care for composition -- which is easy to neglect when taking selfies.
She shot these self-portraits throughout her entire life. It reminds me of those popular YouTube videos of the dude who took one photo of himself every day for 3 years.
And in this way, her photography became a timeline of her life and the person she became over the years.
Her selfies were witty, mysterious, and oftentimes oddly salacious.
5. If You Look Insane, You're Doing it Right
Thomas Jefferson once said somethng along the lines of, "If you want the things you've never had, you must be willing to do the things you've never done."
And that's so true in photography.
If you want the shots that no one else is taking, then it follows that you have you put yourself in positions no one else is putting themselves in.
And you've gotta do it shamelessly.
You can't care what anyone else thinks.
Sure, you might look a little cuckoo, but that's the point!
I don't know about you, but I'd rather feel a little embarrassed in the moment, than to later regret having not taken the shot. That's the worst feeling ever.
Be reckless in the name of photography.
6. Don't Ask For Permission
Street photography is all about capturing a moment as it unfolds.
All of that significance fizzles away when you disturb your subject by asking for permission to take their photograph.
Because "street photography" done in this way creates a fabricated moment -- an unnaturally contrived moment.
The only rule on the street is this: There are no rules.
To be a great street photographer, you have to get in the habit of taking what you want, regardless of whether others think you should have it or not.
Anyone who's in public is fair game to be shot.
And it's clear from Vivian Maier's work that she embraced this.
7. Go Where The Action Is
Vivian Maier was a nanny.
Yes. A nanny.
She nannied for wealthy families in the suburbs of Chicago and New York.
But she didn't take too many photographs out in "the sticks," as she put it. In fact, many of the families she worked with didn't even know she was a photographer.
8. Use Architecture
Photography is an exercise in design.
So is architecture.
Architects follow the same design principles photographers do. They use line, shape, and color to create things that are pleasing to look at.
As street photographers, we have plenty of pre-designed structures to use in our own compositions.
Vivian Maier was aware of this, too.
Her compositions are made dynamic by the architecture around her.
9. Make Eye Contact
She got close to her subjects -- often shooting as close as two feet away.
This is why Maier's photography feels so personal and intimate.
When you obtain eye contact from your subject, it forces a visual dialog between the subject and the viewer of the photograph.
That's what we want.
As makers of art, we want our work to speak to our audience.
Humans give each other eye contact when they speak to each other.To make your photos speak, they need to do the same.
The Main Takeaway
So what can we take from Vivian Maier, after all?
To me, Vivian's most meaningful lesson is a reminder to stay true to oneself.
She was quirky, yes, and understood by few (if any). But she didn't yearn for understanding or feel the need to prove or validate herself. She always did what she wanted.
And now everyone wants what she did.