Exhibits at Fotografiska Display a Difference in Style for Two Street Photographers

“In street photography, there’s no hiding. You’re out in the middle of the action and have to rely on your own judgment, ability, and courage as a photographer to make a meaningful photograph.” – Alex Webb, photographer

Two exhibits at Fotografiska focus on two street photographers – Vivian Maier and Bruce Gilden – whose approach and style could not be more different. 

Vivian Maier – Unseen

Vivian Maier was born in New York in 1926. For 40 years, she worked as a nanny, using her time off to wander throughout the city photographing the people she saw in the streets. She lived for a time in Chicago, where she followed the same routine. She stored her work – negatives, prints, audio recordings and 8 mm film – in a rented storage facility on Chicago’s North Side. 

When Maier died in April, 2009, the contents of the space were auctioned off and three photo collectors purchased her work. Months later, one of the collectors, John Maloof, linked his blog to some of her photos on Flickr and the posts went viral. Experts immediately recognized her talent as a street photographer and her works have since been shown in numerous galleries and museums and collected in several books. The documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013 and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 87th Academy Awards.

Maier was not an “in-your-face” street photographer. Indeed, the Fotografiska exhibit is titled Unseen, capturing her penchant to hide behind her cameras, which included a Rolleiflex, where she would take a picture staring down at the camera’s lens rather than at the subject. Her style echoed her personality. (The families who employed her as a nanny have described her as a very private person.) 

Maier’s ability to appear non-threatening and blend into the background allowed her to come close to her subjects and capture them at moments that truly make her photography compelling. In a section of the exhibit titled, “Remarkable Identities,” Maier’s photography is described as focusing on “people who others don’t see, those who feature nowhere, relegated to life on the margins of a world to which they will never truly belong, in the shadows of that great utopia so in vogue at the time, the `American dream’ and its dazzling glare.” Maier, no doubt, related to those whose images she was capturing. In the entire exhibit, there is only one famous person, Lena Horne, a celebrity, we assume, Maier happened upon rather than sought out. She was far from being a paparazzi. 

Perhaps because of her many years working as a nanny, children were a favorite subject. She was adept at capturing the many aspects of a child’s life, their playfulness, their anxieties, their games, their expressions. There’s no information on whether the children seen in this show were some of her charges, or just children she met during her walks through New York and Chicago.

Unseen includes many self-portraits, often shot as reflections in windows or mirrors. Was she experimenting, capturing her own emotions? Documenting for some future time her own images as she sought to improve her techniques? Whatever the reason, these photos are some of the most intriguing, giving us some insight into the talented street photographer’s own vision of herself. 

Bruce Gilden – Why These?

Bruce Gilden is 77 and still working as a street photographer. In a video included in the exhibit he talks about his life, his work, his approach as a street photographer and why he chose the 45 large and printed photos to be included in this show.

Unlike Maier, Gilden does not hide behind his camera. He often uses a flash, something that certainly puts people on notice that they are about to be photographed. He says in the video that he has been confronted when trying to take a photo. He takes such incidents in stride as part of what it takes to do his job. As quoted on the wall of the exhibit, Gilden is as fired up as ever: “It’s my choice! I’ve been photographing for almost 58 years, I know my work, and I think these are among the best photographs I’ve ever taken in my life.”

We’re inclined to agree. Gilden’s street photos are brash and bold. One shot in Port au Prince, Haiti, shows a young man walking past a young woman. He glances at her, she glares at him. Three other people look on while the encounter enfolds. No surprise that so many paused in front of this photo trying to guess what had transpired. Did these young people know each other? Was he attempting an apology? Was she warning him to stay away? Were those watching anticipating a confrontation? This is Gilden’s talent. One shot that makes us think. 

In the video, Gilden says he has been photographing biker gangs. There are several photos of these members, heavily tattooed and looking menacing. At times Gilden does interact with his subjects, as he obviously did with these bikers. 

One section of the exhibit has large scale color portraits, some taken in Coney Island. The subjects stare into Gilden’s camera defiantly, without any hesitation to adjust their hair, makeup, or clothing. One woman holds onto a kitten. A photo of one young boy has a tear on his cheek. As with Maier’s photos, Gilden has chosen to showcase those on the margins of society. 

With so many having cameras on our phones, we are all now, in a sense, street photographers. Need some inspiration? Then don’t miss these two exhibits.

If you haven’t yet visited Fotografiska, make the trip down to East 22nd Street. From 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, there’s a happy hour. Along with your admission, you can enjoy a complimentary beverage while walking through the exhibits. These two exhibits are the perfect time to visit. Go to the website for more information.

Photos by Woman Around Town

About Charlene Giannetti (715 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that had its premiere at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it won two awards. The film is now available to view on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other services. Charlene and her husband live in Manhattan.