Book review: “Vivian Maier – Self-Portraits” by David Tatnall

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Power House Books. 2013
AUD $65

The mystery surrounding Vivian Maier and her work is either that of genuine intrigue or marketing hype. Not much is known about her as a person or as an artist. There are conflicting stories about her life and background, she didn’t exhibit work during her life-time (1926 – 2009) and it wasn’t until a trunk of her negatives and prints was ‘discovered’ at an auction that she became ‘known’.

Of course it being America, there are conspiracy theories.

But one thing for sure is that she was an extremely good photographer. Two books of her work have been published in recent times, Vivian Maier – Street Photographer (2011) and this book, Vivian Maier – Self-Portraits (2013).

In the current time of the grinning idiot selfie it is wonderful to see a book of subtle and clever self-portraits.

Maier used both 35 mm and medium format cameras, working in colour and black & white. Her work from the 1950’s when she began to use the square format Rolleifiex camera are for me the strongest in the book. She was extremely good at using the square format to its fullest potential; her compositions are very good indeed. Her colour work is strong too, but has a harder feel to it.

There is a mysterious feel to the book from seeing so many photographs of Maier and not knowing why she took so many photographs of her self. Occasionally another person in the photograph, whether this person was know to Maier not, we’ll never know. No diaries or notes about the photographs have been found.

In her introductory essay Elizabeth Avedon says, “I am not sure if we can read the ‘self’ in Vivian Maier’s self-portraiture or even chart the progression of her life through her images. We look at her self-portraits for revelations, but she does not really give us much.”

The cloth bound book of 120 pages (26 x 28 cm) is beautifully printed, the essay by Elizabeth Avedon is concise and informative.

It’s a great book; don’t focus too much attention to the conflicting stories about her life and the conspiracy theories about her. Her photographers are strong, intriguing and mysterious and beautifully presented in this book.

David Tatnall

Official website of Vivian Maier