If you ask a group of photography enthusiasts who the most important street photographer of the 20th century was, you might hear a lot of the same names: Diane Arbus, Weegee, Bill Cunningham, Eugene Atget, definitely Henri Cartier-Bresson. You may not have heard the name Vivian Maier before, but a look into her photos shows an incredible artistry and a fascinating story.
Rather than a journalist or artist, Maier was a nanny in the 1950s and never showed her photographs to anyone. They would have faded into the unknown were it not for John Maloof, a Chicago real estate agent and historical hobbyist, purchasing a box of undeveloped film negatives at a local auction house. The photographer was unknown and his total price for the negatives was $380.
Maier’s self portait:
The photographs, from over 100,000 negatives, were abandoned in a Chicago storage locker. The photos show New York City and Chicago and, most importantly, an incredible photographic eye and technical prowess. Maloof searched until he finally uncovered Vivian Maier's name.
Tragically, Maloof found her obituary before he could reach her. She died in 2009 from a head injury after slipping on the ice at 83 years old.
Much of Maier's life remains a mystery and it seems that this was by choice. Maier was born in New York and raised in France where she and her mother lived with Jeanne J. Bertrand, a French photographic pioneer. This is likely where young Vivian would have learned her craft. Yet the reason she remained undiscovered may never be known.
Maier moved back to New York at 25 years old where she worked at a sweatshop and eventually became a nanny, the job she'd have on and off for the next 40 years. On her days off, she would wander around the streets of NYC and Chicago, taking her spectacular photographs.
Since her photos went public, Maier's work has rocked the art world, receiving international attention. Her story is so fascinating that Maloof created a documentary, called "Finding Vivian Maier". The film screened in March of 2014 and is awaiting home distribution.
Credit: John Maloof