By the end of her freshman year, Mollie Laidly had presented not only at St. Thomas’ ACTC English Majors Conference in March, but also at the English Graduate Conference, “Postcards from the Edge,” in April. Not bad for a first year.
“Because I’m an English major, it made me feel like I’m in the right place,” Laidly said.
She presented on Vivian Maier at both conferences, exploring the street photographer’s work and the societal implications of her photographs.
Discovering Vivian Maier
Maier’s story traverses decades, the kind of material that proves life is stranger than fiction. She worked as a nanny for 40 years in Chicago, took more than 150,000 photographs, rarely printed them and exhibited nothing while she was alive. Her photos reveal life in the cities of post-World War II America, particularly Chicago. She took photographs of the young and the old, contrasting the upper class and lower class, and even photographed Audrey Hepburn on the street.
She died in 2009, unknown, nearly penniless, with no will and no close family.
In 2007 thousands of her negatives were bought at auction from a storage locker for $400. They were posted online later, and, from there, Maier went viral. Her work has been shown globally. A 2011 Mother Jones article praised her as “The Best Street Photographer You’ve Never Heard Of.”
In more recent months, the story has become convoluted, with legal battles over who holds the rights to her photography and profits from her work, in addition to the argument of whether Maier would have even wanted her work shown.
Laidly first saw Maier’s work at a visit to the MPLS Photo Center, prompted by class on visual literacy.
“I thought they were so elegant and they just caught my eye right away,” Laidly said.
She wrote an excursion paper about her visit, but came back to Maier’s work for a longer paper at the end of the semester, which she submitted to the ACTC English Majors Conference. After success at the ACTC English Majors Conference, her professors encouraged her to apply to the English Graduate Conference.
“I really, really like that the English Department is supporting me in this, and they’re really pushing me to do better,” Laidly said.
The female street photographer
At the first conference Laidly presented, “From the Perspective of the Flâneuse: Street Photography through the Camera of Vivian Maier,” and at the English Graduate Conference, she presented, “Through Vivian Maier’s Lens: The Gender of Street Photography.” Both presentations explored Maier’s identity as a female street photographer and how that impacted her work.
“Vivian Maier … took photographs that miraculously represent her independence as a woman,” Laidly wrote. She pointed out how, merely by walking the street and taking these photographs, Maier was breaking the mold, because it was atypical for women to be on their own in the city during the mid-20th century.
Laidly also contrasted Maier’s work with male street photographers, such as Brassai. She drew on film theorist Laura Mulvey and filmmaker Susan Sontag to support her arguments, and delved into the idea of a photographer being “a stalking soldier, ready to shoot what they desire.” This concept is applied commonly to male photographers working with female subjects, Laidly said. While Maier also could be considered an intruder as a street photographer, her feminine perspective allowed her to diverge from her male counterparts, Laidly argued. She then compared Maier's occupation as a photographer to one of the subjects in her photos.
“Maier’s candid shot of a woman alone, without companion, was unusual and striking. … This commonality was the ability to walk in life alone. Maier defined her own version of what a woman should be: a woman who is able to be independent,” Laidly wrote.
“Both women, alone, hold no power in the situation; however, Maier’s photograph shows a woman illuminating the night, while Brassai displays a woman being consumed by it,” Laidly wrote. She emphasized how Brassai’s image only shows a woman from behind, while the subject in Maier’s image is either “facing forward or unshaded by the surroundings.”
Laidly said Maier’s self-portraits are her favorites, noting that Maier would often find “interesting” ways to take her own image, such as reflecting herself in an object.
“The camera was both her eye and her mirror. … I believe Maier was making a statement with these self-portraits of her pride in who she was,” Laidly wrote, “a statement she did not need to share with anyone but herself. Not previously meant for publication, her self-portraits encompassed who she was both behind and in front of the camera simultaneously.”
A source of inspiration
Whether Maier’s work should have been shown or not may remain in debate, but there’s no question it has become a source of inspiration for many, Laidly among them. Laidly credited Maier for playing a role in the resurgence of street photography.
“Street photography is a really different art form,” Laidly said, citing the popular Humans of New York Web series as an example of how street photography has grown. “A lot of people are starting to see more street photography in our generation because a lot of people live in cities and we all have photographs and cameras now, and can take whatever we want.”
When asked if she was going to pursue anything more with Maier’s work after the conferences, Laidly said, “Who knows? I will always love her photos and (will) always follow the archiving process, and see her photographs as they are displayed.”