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The enigmatic life of Vivian Maier

Posted on 15 Sep 2022

'She photographed Frank Sinatra, shoeshine boys, and a toddler with tears coursing down her cheeks. She photographed a fur coat, a pearled neck and a drunken brawl... All of this with a humanity, clarity and compositional force.'

Image: © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY. New York, May 5, 1955.

It’s daytime in New York City and the news vendor has fallen asleep. Hat on head, head in hand, he dozes in his kiosk, framed by stacks of newspaper, comics and magazines. Around him, cover stories announce the events and entertainments of 1950s America. Country music hits. Headlines of “TERROR”. Newsweek and Disney. Look and Life. The man sleeps through it all, seemingly removed from the clamor of modernity — and oblivious to the woman taking his picture: Vivian Maier.

Born in 1926, Maier was an extraordinary, prolific – and deeply private – documenter of midcentury America. In her lifetime, she made more than 150,000 photographs, as well as Super 8 and 16mm films, prints, and audio recordings. She collected vast quantities of news clippings and held onto piles of travel tickets, receipts, notes, found objects and trinkets.

Active primarily on the streets of Chicago and New York, Maier roamed the city and probed the breadth of experience it contained. She photographed garbage dumps and movie premieres, demolition sites and The New York Public Library. She photographed Frank Sinatra, shoeshine boys, and a toddler with tears coursing down her cheeks. She photographed a fur coat, a pearled neck and a drunken brawl. A burning chair, a doll in a bin, and a dog with a bandaged paw. All of this with a humanity, clarity and compositional force that’s drawn comparison to Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Helen Levitt.

Image: © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY. New York, January 26, 1955.

Image: © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY. Chicago, 1968.

While she was alive, Maier kept this astonishing archive almost entirely to herself. She worked, for more than forty years, as a nanny and caregiver, mostly in the North Shore area of Chicago. In the family homes where she was employed, she would request a lockable door, and fill her living quarters with storage boxes, ring binders – and reams of undeveloped film. She almost always had her camera of choice, a Rollieflex, strung around her neck, but hardly ever showed the pictures she took.

It was only in 2007, when a Chicago real estate developer, John Maloof, bought some of Maier’s negatives at a storage auction, that her work became public. Impressed by what he saw, Maloof uploaded some of Maier’s pictures on the image sharing platform, Flickr. Encouraged by a rapturous response, he set about securing the rest of Maier’s collection, promoting her work, and finding out as much as possible about her life. His search for the artist’s identity was the makings of a 2013 documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, and did much to deepen interest in her work.

Yet in death, as in life, Maier eluded close inspection. In 2009, a brief obituary in The Chicago Tribune remembering a “second mother” and “photographer extraordinaire” led Maloof to the Gensburg family, Maier’s longest-term employers, and from there to other families who had hired her for nannying or care. Census and travel records established that she was born in the Bronx, had French and Austro-Hungarian heritage, was raised by her mother, and spent some childhood years in France. She returned to New York in 1951, where she worked in a sweatshop, before moving onto Chicago in 1956. In 1959, she took a world trip, taking pictures in Los Angeles, Bangkok, Beijing, and across India, Syria, Egypt, and Italy.

Beyond these biographical fragments, Maier remained mysterious to Maloof – and to the many families who had welcomed her into their homes. Her continental accent was hard to place. She wore capacious, old-fashioned clothes. With each new employer, she changed details of her back story and alternately asked to be called “Vivian”, “Viv”, or “Ms Maier”. She left pseudonyms with storekeepers and shifted the spelling of her last name. She described herself in one encounter as “sort of  a spy”. For some of those who were in her care, she was unstable, callous, even abusive. To others, she was imaginative, positive, and playful.

Since her posthumous recognition, Maier’s domestic work is sometimes cast in opposition to her creative talent. “Why would a nanny be taking all these pictures?” Maloof asks, with a note of absurdity, in Finding Vivian Maier. Yet Maier’s employment in family homes can also be seen as enabling of, and compatible with, her photography. It provided her with board and lodging. It gave her a basic income. And it afforded her a freedom of movement and subject matter. Day after day, she took her charges on long excursions – through downtown, side streets, stockyards and slums. They would walk for miles, Maier striding ahead with her camera, stopping whenever something caught her eye.

Image: © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY. Unknown location, 1958.

Image: © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY. Chicago, 1971.

As a professional carer, Meier’s work would also have required a delicate balance of closeness and remove – an ability to live with a family unit she was at once an integral part of, and apart from. She was, in the words of Rose Lichter-Marck, “with people, but not of them”. For many, this distance-in-proximity is an uneasy emotional spot. For Maier, it would be a skill she could carry over to her photography: an ability to immerse herself in a place; to move inconspicuously among its dwellers; to see their beauties, tragedies and idiosyncrasies; to get up close to their faces and lives — and then to frame, focus, and shoot.

It seems plausible, too, that Maier’s work in affluent suburban milieus may have sharpened a sense, keenly present in her photography, of social and economic inequity. Her pictures sometimes land on trappings of glamour and wealth, but more often focus on destitution and struggle. She photographs, in particular, the poor, homeless, and elderly, the war-wounded, injured and unwell. It seems important to her, as Anne Morin writes, to record “those relegated to the margins of the world, the mismatches of modernity, kept at a distance, in the background, by the pure and clear American Dream.”

Maier herself defied the logic of the Dream. She showed zero interest in promoting or selling her work, in accruing either cultural or economic capital. She never married, never had children, never had any known partnership, and rarely referred to anyone as a friend. She flouted the expectations of capitalism and conventional womanhood, just as she confounded attempts to find out who she was.

Even in her self-portraits, Maier courts unknowability. She photographs her reflection and her shadow, caught in a mirror, fleeting across a window, cast across the lawn, seashore or street. Sometimes, she is wearing a wide-brimmed hat. Often, all or part of her face is obscured. Her figure is partial, fragmented, spectral. Now you see me, now you don’t, she seems to say. She, meanwhile, sees it all.

Get your copy of Vivian Maier, a full-career retrospective bringing together key works from throughout her life and career.

Words by Eliza Apperly