I’m a great fan of the Chicago-based street photographer Vivian Maier. Her considerable body of photographic work – in black and white, in colour, in movie format – is still seeing the light of day. John Maloof, who almost by happenstance discovered her archive, makes new finds every day. Maier worked as a nanny for a number of families in Chicago. While her photos show the influence of the ambient photographic styles of the day, as you would expect, the best of her work rivals the greats. She was particularly good photographing children and the downtrodden. Her photos remind us of the underside of American prosperity, always salutary, especially in an election year.
Though she remained mostly in Chicago and New York, she did travel to India, Puerto Rico, Canada, Yemen, Thailand, Vietnam, Egypt, and throughout Europe. In June 1959 she was in Thailand. Mayer kept everything meticulously filed it, so one day a full account of her travels with a camera will emerge. Meanwhile we have these three photos she took in Thailand, which caught my eye. I’m relying on my friends in Bangkok to identify the above temple scene. The soaring stupas are under a rainy-season sky, and John Maloof gives the date of June 5, 1959. The composition and contrast in shade are lovely, the temple dog almost camouflaged by the undergrowth. It’s a scene of decay and renewal.
The self-portrait with Rolliflex could have been taken anywhere in Bangkok, but it has the look of New Road or perhaps around Hua Lampong train station. It may not even have been taken in Bangkok. A group of schoolgirls in the background could be from any decade – the uniform length hasn’t changed. Vivian is protected from the July heat by her trademark floppy hat. The wavering reflection in the mirror shows a traffic police podium and a street crossing. I like in particular the way the underside of the galvanise awning creates a crazy cross-hatching, echoed by the chaotic wiring above the street. It’s a hot, dusty, bleached Thai street scene, not too different from when I first saw the country in 1983.
This lovely portrait shot of two children is also dated June 5 1959, so perhaps it was taken in the precinct of the same temple. The white paste on the little girls’ faces and shoulders is part of a religious ritual, a sign of protection to ward off evil – perhaps even the evil eye.
Another fine composition here in this portrait of the boatman, probably taken with the Rolliflex on her knee, so the rowing man is not particularly aware the shot is being taken. It’s dated June 27, 1959, somewhere in Asia. A further photo seems to be to have been taken in Malaysia or Indonesia, again on June 27 1959.
If you’re new to the work of Vivian Maier, go have a browse at John Maloof’s Vivian Maier site. The documentary about her is also excellent, and a trailer for it is here on YouTube. An example of one of her home movies is here, also on YouTube. You can also find my July 2014, much fuller post on Vivian Maier here.