Photographer Study #1: Unearthing Visual Treasures from the Life of Vivian Maier

Some time in the early 1950’s, and subsequently since, from the streets of New York and Chicago to South East Asia, the Middle East, Europe and other parts of the globe, Vivian Maier would go about producing a truly  striking body of Street Photographic work. And yet, this lifetime’s worth of visuals, the countless stories stored in countless negatives and the products of a woman’s visual engagement with the world around her, she would stash away, never intended for the world to see.

Until, that is, most of her belongings, thousands of film rolls included, which were locked away in a storage house, was auctioned off to pay her debts. John Maloof, who had spent roughly 300$ on a box of junk that belonged to a seemingly unknown ‘Vivian Maier’, would only realize the true value of this photographer and her work two years later, a couple months after her death in 2009.

What he came to possess, by sheer happenstance, was essentially a historic record of life between the 1950’s and 70’s, captured by this mysterious woman. This is what made it all even more intriguing, that such a significant body of work, of quality the likes of certain Street Photography greats, was created by the enigma that was, and perhaps to a large extent still is, Vivian Maier.

This inspired Maloof to dedicate all his time and resources to not only ensuring that her work saw the light of day but also to figuring out who she was. With the help of clues left behind in everything she’d collected and stored away, (Hoarding, it seemed, was an active hobby of hers) the mystery of Vivian Maier slowly began to unravel.

Vivian Maier, of French (on the mother’s side) and Austrian (on the father’s) descent, was born in New York but moved to France and spent almost the entirety of her childhood there before moving back to New York in 1951. In her 20’s around this time, Maier becomes a Nanny and begins to care for several children along the way. It is largely based on the account of some of these children she took care of, many years later, that we get a sense of what she was like.

Described as a Mary Poppins like character, Vivian Maier was eccentric and loved taking the children to explore all the various corners of the city.

Her Rolleiflex hung around her neck the entire time and she would snap away, documenting “the absurd nuances of daily life”, as she saw it. An important quality any good street photographer should possess.

Processed negatives also revealed she had a love for reflections and self portraiture and would often combine the two.

Another reason it’s so fascinating to go into Maier’s history is that she was a wildly private person. The people she worked for or lived with barely knew much about her. She was never married, had no children of her own and no known relatives or close friends who could provide further insight into her identity. Her work, however, tells us of a bold, curious woman actively searching for stories all around her. Her work is a record of an era from a very grounded point of view. She was no different from the people or the moments she photographed. And she took photographs for no other reason than to photograph.

“Art for Art’s sake”, goes the saying… With Vivian Maier, this certainly was the case.

In light of International Women’s Day 2020, we’re here to celebrate the fascinating life and story of Vivian Maier; the Everyday Nanny/ truly exceptional Street Photographer! Women like her, Jeanne Bertrand, Margaret Bourke- White and other such photographers have contributed greatly to our Photographic history and to raising the standards of Photography to make it what it is today!

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