Vivian Maier: Unpretentious Nanny With a Passion for Photography

Vivian Dorothy Maier was an American street photographer whose work was discovered and recognized after her death.

She was born in New York City, in 1926. Although born in the US, it was in France that Maier spent most of her youth.

She picked up a camera for the first time in 1947 and worked late into the 1990s capturing her favored subjects: fleeting moments and images from her urban surroundings in Chicago and New York, touching upon destitution, urban development, pedestrian culture, and the American identity. Her later works featured fewer figures and took more interest in found objects, graffiti, and detritus.

The woman behind the myth.

Often described as ‘Mary-Poppin’s’, Vivian Maier had eccentricity on her side as a nanny for three boys who she raised like a mother. She never married, had no children, nor any very close friends that could say they “knew” her on a personal level.

She was eccentric, strong, heavily opinionated, highly intellectual, and intensely private. She wore a floppy hat, a long dress, wool coat, and men’s shoes and walked with a powerful stride. With a camera around her neck whenever she left the house, she would obsessively take pictures, but never showed her photos to anyone. An unabashed and unapologetic original.

In her leisure, Vivian would shoot photos that she zealously hid from the eyes of others. Taking snapshots into the late 1990′s, Maier would leave behind a body of work comprising over 100,000 negatives. Additionally Vivian’s passion for documenting extended to a series of homemade documentary films and audio recordings.

Well, I suppose nothing is meant to last forever. We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel. You get on, you have to go to the end. And then somebody has the same opportunity to go to the end and so on. Vivian Maier

Maier’s massive body of work would come to light when in 2007 her work was discovered at a local thrift auction house on Chicago’s Northwest Side. From there, it would eventually impact the world over and change the life of the man who championed her work and brought it to the public eye, John Maloof.
John Maloof, a real estate agent, amateur historian, and garage-sale obsessive, acquired a box of photographic materials and personal detritus at an auction in suburban Chicago in 2007, he quickly realized that he had stumbled upon an unknown master of street photography.

Maloof managed to track down more work by the same hand – eventually amassing an archive of up to 100,000 negatives and some 3,000 prints, plus box upon box of film rolls, audio interviews, receipts, letters, and countless personal effects. After further sleuthing, he finally managed to give the anonymous photographer an identity: she was a former professional carer named Vivian Maier.

In 2008 Vivian fell on a patch of ice and hit her head in downtown Chicago. Although she was expected to make a full recovery, her health began to deteriorate, forcing Vivian into a nursing home. She passed away a short time later in April of 2009, leaving behind her immense archive of work.

Vivian Maier’s output would become an influential body of work in 20th-century street photography.

Vivian Maier really makes me think about how many hobbyist photographer’s works we haven’t seen and won’t get to see.

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