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Vivian Maier. Nanny, and secretive Street Photographer from the 50’s and 60’s.

June 24, 2013

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I recently heard about the work of today’s photographer Vivian Maier and here is the amazing story behind her work. She was a 1950s’ children’s nanny who kept herself to herself and never showed a single one of her photographs to anyone. Decades later in 2007, a Chicago real estate agent and historical hobbyist, John Maloof purchased a box of never-seen, never-printed film negatives of an unknown ‘amateur’ photographer for $380 at his local auction house and discovered possibly one of the most important street photographers of the 20th century.

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Maier was born to a French mother and Austrian father in the Bronx borough of New York City. The census records although useful, give us an incomplete picture. We find Vivian at the age of four living in NYC with only her mother along with Jeanne Bertrand, an award winning portrait photographer, her father was already out of the picture. Having told others she had learned English from theaters and plays, Vivian’s ‘theater of life’ was acted out in front of her eyes for her camera to capture in the most epic moments. Vivian never married, had no children, nor any very close friends that could say they “knew” her on a personal level.

She has such a creative eye and a skill for making people relax and look natural in her images.

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Thanks to one of the families that Vivian nannied for in Chicago for seventeen years, the Gensburgs, John was able to acquire items in her two (packed) storage lockers of personal belongings that were going to be thrown in the garbage. Most of what was stuffed in these two units was a giant collection of various found objects such as crushed paint cans, railroad spikes and other pieces, but sandwiched between the clutter, were hundreds of rolls of color film and fresh clues that would take his research into new directions.

Vivian didn’t shy away from covering the more gritty sides of NY and the children whom she looked after, recall her taking them for walks in these areas.

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I particularly like the humour and connection that she has with the people she photographs. You can see the delight on the children’s faces, they’re having fun and don’t feel threatened by her presence at all.

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Oddly for someone so slightly paranoid about being a photographer, she also documented herself and her physical being (shadow, reflections etc) in her work too, but rarely smiling like her childish sitters.

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At times she had a cultural eye on what was going on around her. A ‘Beryl Cook’ perspective on the photographic world.

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Sadly at the age of 83 and before John could find her, he found her obituary notice in the Chicago Tribune in 2009. She had slipped on some ice the previous winter, suffered a head injury and never fully recovered.

For anyone interested in this amazing woman’s work, there’s a book available through Amazon and a soon to be released Movie ‘Finding Vivian Maier’.

She took over 100,000 photographs worldwide—from France to New York City to Chicago and dozens of other countries—and yet showed the results to no one.

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Vivian’s story is inspirational in so many ways. In a modern climate of celebrity culture, it’s so rare to hear about someone that wasn’t doing it for money or fame. For Vivian it was just about her curiosity, her love for her city and the thrill of taking a picture. You can discover more about her history here and about her work 

All rights to Jon Maloof and obvious thanks to him for showing this wonderful body of work to the world.

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You can view the film’s trailer here.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2013 2:11 pm

    Absolutely stunning work, and unbelievable that she never shared it. I just can’t get my head around that; I am so immersed in doing it for the recognition and/or money. I’m not even sure that what she did was right! Can’t wait to see the movie.

    • June 25, 2013 10:21 am

      I’m sure there’s a lesson in there for all of us Chancery. Perhaps we need to believe in what we do for ourselves before others can follow. Thanks for your comment. Yes eagerly awaiting the documentary this evening too.

  2. June 24, 2013 2:12 pm

    Thanks so much for this wonderful introduction!

    • June 25, 2013 10:22 am

      No problem at all Lari. Her work is stunning isn’t it. As soon as I found it I knew I needed to talk about her.

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