Vivian Maier with Rolleiflex: Self-portrait taken in New York City in 1955. While employed as a nanny, Maier took more than 100,000 photos of the streets of Chicago during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. After her death in 2009, her work has been gaining attention.Photo Credit: Vivian Maier
Source: Wikipedia Commons
I have never heard of Vivian Maier until I happened to land on an article about her in Mother Jones, while researching an article on a more well-known photographer, Robert Frank. Her photographic oeuvre, showing mainly the streets of Chicago during the 1950s, '60s and '70s, is captivating, stunning, and was never published in her lifetime. She took photographs for herself, many of children and many of the disenfranchised and the poor. Vivian Maier died on April 23, 2009. She was 83. (See the short obituary in the Chicago Tribune.)
Like many others, the photos compelled me to know about this woman, this skillful photographer of people. In "Vivian Maier: the nanny with a flair for photograph," an article that Kate Salter wrote for The Telegraph in its April 15, 2011 edition, we learn:
Maier was born in New York in 1926 to a French mother and Austrian father. After her father left, Maier and her mother returned to France, where they lived until 1951 when the 25-year-old Maier left on her own for New York. In 1956 she answered the Gensburgs’ advert for a nanny, although Nancy Gensburg, the boys’ mother, said, 'She really wasn’t interested in being a nanny at all, but she didn’t know how to do anything else.’Maier was a nanny for three boys of the Gensburg family in Chicago, and for other wealthy families. All told, she spent forty years working for Chicago families of the wealthy North Shore enclave as a nanny and caregiver. In spare time, she loved shooting pictures, more than 100,000 photos, the great majority laying dormant, not privy to anyone, in undeveloped rolls of film.
Maier's photos were unknown and mostly undeveloped until they were bought at an estate auction for $400 by John Maloof in 2007 who thought the photos would be useful for a history book he was writing on Chicago's Northwest Side. Since he acquired the negatives, Maloof has spent the time finding out more about Maier and making her work better known. Part of the story is that Maier was living on the streets of Chicago for a while before one of her former "children" paid for more comfortable accommodations.
Her story has engendered interest, and Maier has been written about by many major newspapers around the world. Vivian Maier might have found the interest in her and her work amusing, or perhaps might have expressed surprise at all the fuss, I am not sure. In the age of the Internet and social-networking, where instant gratification is the norm, Maier's lack of self-glorification or self-promotion seems quaint if not anachronistic today. That might appeal to many. The fascination that her pictures have generated might be in large part due to both the interest of the subjects and the times when the pictures were taken.
Equally important, Maier was not a professional photographer, but a liberated woman who focused her lens on whom and what interested her. She took pictures, as is common with street photography, in an uncensored fashion, free from conventional rules and norms.And yet the photos have universal appeal. It might be said that Vivian Maier's photographs speak of a freedom that many today lack.