The simple eye: Vivian Maier’s photographic mysticism

By Jeremy Biles
March 14, 2011

Currently on display at the Chicago Cultural Center are Vivian Maier’s street photographs, which are generating enormous excitement not only in Chicago, but internationally.

A self-taught photographer, Maier's work exhibits an outward-turned attitude, “a charity free from all taint of sentimentalism” such as that described by scholar Evelyn Underhill in her volume entitled Practical Mysticism.

Underhill describes the benefits of the contemplative life in Practical Mysticism as well as in her best-known work, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (1911), which remains a classic in the literature on spirituality.

She provides a practical guide for this mode of life for ordinary, 'practical' people for whom the term 'mysticism' might conjure the idea of “leading an idle, dreamy, and selfish life” or “wallowing in vague spiritual emotions.” Countering such mistaken preconceptions, Underhill draws upon and synthesises techniques from a wide range of spiritual traditions, especially Christianity, laying out the stages of mystical contemplation.

This spiritual education does not lead to flights of emotion or passive navel-gazing. On the contrary, it involves such charity as is evident in the work of recently 'discovered' Vivian Maier.

Maier died two years ago, at the age of 83. She grew up in Europe and New York City, but worked as a nanny in Chicago’s North Shore suburb for about forty years. Something of a recluse, she appears to have taken photos almost constantly on her walks around Chicago and on her trips to New York City and around the world - yet she never shared her photos with anyone, instead amassing tens of thousands of undeveloped images.

In 2007, a trove of 100,000 of Maier’s negatives was obtained by a young Chicago real-estate agent named John Maloof, an “inveterate troller of flea-markets” who purchased the bulk of them in an auction.

Thanks to Maloof and to the curators of Vivian Maier Photography, who have in their possession another 12,000 negatives, these images are now coming into the public spotlight, earning comparisons with legendary street photographers like Brassai and Cartier-Bresson.

An article in the New York Times’ 'Lens' blog describes Maier as “evidently one of America’s more insightful street photographers.” But little has been written about Maier’s photos, and much of what is out there has focused on the dramatic back-story about the near loss, and improbable discovery, of her work. Though this story lends the photos prestige, and though the comparisons with Maier’s predecessors are merited, the images themselves are extraordinary, a thing apart.

In fact, the emerging body of work betokens what I would call photographic mysticism. There is no evidence that Maier considered herself a mystic (in fact, she has been described as “anti-Catholic”). Yet the photos are evidence that Maier attained what Underhill calls the “Simple Eye” of contemplation—a naked consciousness of the sensible world characterising the early stages of the mystic’s spiritual education. Disburdened of the intellectual concepts and labels that fragment and compartmentalise reality, this mode of apprehension sees things simply as they are, thanks to a generosity, or an “intuitive sympathy,” free of self-interest, distributed among all things available to the senses.

In Maier’s work, such charity shines through in her treatment of subjects ranging from the elevated—Salvador Dalí was among the affluent celebrities she photographed - to the abject: the ostensibly homeless and poor, whom she photographed without condescension or fetishistic theatricality. Her love of unexpected forms emerging from the angles of architectural structures or the spaces between them is apparent in her many urban images.

Maier also trains attention on patterns (fabrics, curtains, blinds) and textures (wrinkled faces and bunched clothes), and does so with a patent sensitivity for tones and hues. These photos attest to a contemplative wakefulness, an attitude of “impassioned contemplation”, in Underhill’s words.

In fact, Underhill emphasises the connection between aesthetic practice and contemplation, claiming that “the artist is no more and no less than a contemplative who has learned to express [her]self.”

That a camera might be of assistance in attaining the “Simple Eye” of charitable contemplation is suggested in Underhill’s observation that this instrument, which is “more apt at contemplation than the mind of man,” is a model for the ascent from mere conceptual thought to mystical consciousness, the first stage of which is “absolute sensation.”

Such spiritual movement is enabled by “disinterestedness, the saint’s and poet’s [and photographer’s] love of things for their own sakes, the vision of the charitable heart.” For Maier, who never revealed her photos, this charitable attention, this “disinterested adoration,” was enacted through the very practice of photography.

In her we have street photography as a mode of heightened attention to the everyday. The affectionate but unsentimental photos that emerged from this attention are the tangible products of Maier’s mysticism of the moment.

If it is true that disinterested adoration is “the only attitude in which true communion with the universe is possible,” then it is apparent why Maier’s photos are inspiring such collective enthusiasm. They are the fruit of Maier’s Simple Eye: an eye turned outward, in a generosity dedicated to the everyday world around her.


The exhibition 'Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer' is on display at the Chicago Cultural Center through 3 April 2011. Some of the biographical information in this article was taken from the brochure accompanying the show:

John Maloof maintains a blog at which readers can find a wide sampling of Maier’s work as well as Maloof’s account of the discovery of the negatives:

Vivian Maier Photography has further samples of Maier’s photos:

The New York Times write-up on Maier in the Lens blog can be found here:

Evelyn Underhill’s Practical Mysticism was first published in 1914.


© Jeremy Biles holds a PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School and is the author of Ecce Monstrum: Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form (Fordham University Press, 2007). He is book reviews editor for the Religious Studies Review, and teaches courses on religion, philosophy, art, and popular culture at institutions including DePaul University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, USA.

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

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