The Photography Legends come back on the blog this week with Vivian Maier, a master of street photography who spent most of her working life in obscurity as a nanny in New York.
Discovered only after a lifetime of shooting, her oeuvre made of over 100,000 images sat unseen in storage.
As her legend continues to unfold, let's rediscover her masterpiece photos in full-resolution powered by Prodibi
About the Artist
Vivian Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) was an American amateur street photographer born in New York City, but she grew up in France. Many details of Maier's life remain unknown, her mother was French and her father Austrian, and she moved several times during her childhood between the US and France.
When Maier was 4, she and her mother moved to the Bronx with Jeanne Bertrand, a successful professional photographer.
In 1951, aged 25, Maier moved from France to New York, where she worked in a sweatshop. She moved to the Chicago area's North Shore in 1956, where she worked primarily as a nanny and carer for the next 40 years. For her first 17 years in Chicago, Maier worked as a nanny for two families: the Gensburgs from 1956 to 1972, and the Raymonds from 1967 to 1973.
During those years, she took more than 100,000 photographs, primarily of people and cityscapes in Chicago, although she traveled and photographed worldwide. Additionally Vivian’s passion for documenting extended to a series of homemade documentary films and audio recordings.
Interesting bits of Americana, the demolition of historic landmarks for new development, the unseen lives of ethnics and the destitute, as well as some of Chicago’s most cherished sites were all meticulously cataloged by Vivian Maier.
Lane Gensburg later said of Maier, "She was like a real, live Mary Poppins," and said she never talked down to kids and was determined to show them the world outside their affluent suburb. The families that employed her described her as very private and reported that she spent her days off walking the streets of Chicago and taking photographs, usually with a Rolleiflex camera.
John Maloof, the curator of some of Maier's photographs, summarized the way the children she nannied would later describe her:
"She was a Socialist, a Feminist, a movie critic, and a tell-it-like-it-is type of person. She learned English by going to theaters, which she loved... She was constantly taking pictures, which she didn't show anyone."
In the documentary films Finding Vivian Maier (2013) and Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny's Pictures / The Vivian Maier Mystery (2013), interviews with Maier's employers and their children suggest that Maier presented herself to others in multiple ways, with various accents, names, life details, and that with some children, she had been inspiring and positive, while with others she was frightening and abusive.
The Gensburg brothers, whom Maier had looked after as children, tried to help her as she became poorer in old age. Fondly remembering Maier as a second mother, they pooled together to pay for an apartment and took the best of care for her.
In November 2008, Maier fell on the ice and hit her head. She was taken to a hospital but failed to recover. In January 2009, she was transported to a nursing home in the Chicago suburbs, where she died on April 21, 2009.
*Read on: Photography Legends: William Wegman
In 2007, two years before she died, Maier failed to keep up payments on storage space she had rented on Chicago's North Side. Her possessions were auctioned off in 2007 and three photo collectors bought parts of her work: John Maloof, Ron Slattery and Randy Prow.
After her death two years later, John Maloof who had bought one of the lots began to put her images online. Within weeks, her legend was born and she finally earned the global following she deserved.
Currently, Vivian Maier’s body of work is being archived and cataloged for the enjoyment of others and future generations. John Maloof is at the core of this project after reconstructing most of the archive, having been previously dispersed to the various buyers attending that auction. Now, with roughly 90% of her archive reconstructed, Vivian’s work is part of a renaissance in interest in the art of Street Photography.
To see more of Vivian's work:
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