Here is a true story of a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. She was born in 1926 in New York City to a French mother and an Austrian father, and spent her childhood shuttling between America and France. Remaining unmarried, she spent most of her life working as a nanny or caregiver. From the age of 26 she stayed with a family as a nanny for some years; finally being employed at the age of 30 as caregiver for another family with three boys in the suburbs of Chicago, till the rest of her life—passing away in 2009 at the age of 83. She was Vivian Maier.
But unknown to anyone, Vivian Maier in her leisure time was secretly taking photos for five decades. It was only in 2007 two years before her death, that someone stumbled on her legacy of over 100,000 negatives, most of them shot in Chicago and New York City. She also left behind homemade films, recordings and collections, assembling one of the most fascinating windows into American life.
Ironically it was only after Maier’s death that the world saw her meticulously catalogued images of Americana, the demolition of historic landmarks for new development, the unseen lives of various groups of people and the destitute, as well as some of Chicago’s landmarks.
During her later years, when she couldn’t continue to earn as a nanny, as the three boys had grown up, it was they who supported their poor nanny by paying for her apartment and taking best care of her. It was when they were forced to auction one of Maier’s storage lockers due to delinquent payments when the massive hoard of negatives which she had secretly stashed throughout her lifetime came to light.
The credit for discovering and championing her work is attributed to John Maloof, president of his local history society. He undertook a project to archive and catalogue her body of work for future generations. Now, with roughly 90% of her archive reconstructed, Maier’s work is part of a renaissance in interest in the art of Street Photography.
Because of her impoverished background and a lone ranger type of lifestyle, Maier’s photos gravitated towards highlighting the disadvantaged and the poor around the globe. To document these societies, from 1951 to 1965, she travelled alone to Canada, South America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, Florida and the Caribbean Islands, and so on.
She also spent photographing the unusual in her own backyard as well. Thus you could catch in her images glimpses of the sadness of Yugoslavian emigres burying their Czar; the final go-around at the legendary stockyards; a Polish film screening at the Milford Theater’s Cinema Polski; or Chicagoans welcoming home the Apollo Crew. Here was Maier, a one-person army, silently documenting what caught her eye, in photos, film and sound.
The uniqueness of her images was that even though she shot in America’s most photographed places, she avoided the visual clichés of a city like Chicago, and captured the city in a subtler way, transforming her pictures into a social history.
The website, vivianmaier.com, succinctly puts it, ‘The personal accounts from people who knew Vivian are all very similar. She was eccentric, strong, heavily opinionated, highly intellectual, and intensely private. She wore a floppy hat, a long dress, wool coat, and men’s shoes and walked with a powerful stride. With a camera around her neck whenever she left the house, she would obsessively take pictures, but never showed her photos to anyone. An unabashed and unapologetic original… 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.’
Says reputed British documentary photographer, Anna Fox, ‘Every street photography book will have to include her from now on. In the history of photography, lots of people have been discovered after their deaths, but her photographs are amazing. I was quite taken aback when I first saw them. What’s most interesting is the accidental story and the incredible effort to get her work off the ground – because there’s little about her background and people that knew her, it adds to the mystery and intrigue. But the images are beautifully constructed and it’s clear she knew her references. There’s a glimmer of Diane Arbus, a glimmer of Robert Frank… As a woman you have a privileged position. Women develop relationships with people they are photographing, and are less threatening with a medium format camera. There’s a subtle irony and gentleness that is a particular female gaze, although it makes more sense to look at photographers as photographers. Vivian’s images are so strong they stand up regardless of gender.’
A video was produced on her in 2014, Finding Vivian Maier which was an Oscar 2015 Nominee. Likewise the book, Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits edited by John Maloof revealed an intimate portrait of the artist—he was also the editor of the highly acclaimed Vivian Maier: Street Photographer.
Left to herself Vivian Maier may never have aspired for the type of adulation that she has been able to generate in the years after her death. As she once said, ‘Well, I suppose nothing is meant to last forever. We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel. You get on, you have to go to the end. And then somebody has the same opportunity to go to the end and so on.’
Siddharth Kumar is the Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year stint in an MNC, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music. In 2019, he was awarded Certificate of Honorable Mention by International Photography Awards (IPA), Los Angeles. In 2014, he won the First Prize at the International Photography Competition organized by Mindshare Worldwide. He holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London.