Street photography is a relatively new art form, but one that has been rapidly growing in popularity over the last century. Advances in camera technology have made street photography an increasingly accessible form of art, and the growing diversity of the artists has lead to greater diversity in the art itself. During the first 60 years or so of street photography’s existence as an art form, its artists were overwhelmingly male. Occasionally a female photographer would come along and wow the street photography community, but the truly big names – Eugene Atget, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand – were almost exclusively men. That is, until the early fifties when a mysterious nanny of indeterminate national origin came onto the scene.
Vivian Maier has been described as “eccentric, strong, heavily opinionated, highly intellectual, and intensely private” (Maloof, n.p.) by those who knew her. Born in the Bronx in 1926 to a French and Austrian mother and father, she spent much of her childhood in her mother’s native French village. She moved back to New York City in 1951, and began working as a live-in nanny while pursuing photography every chance she got (Maloof, n.p.).
Maier herself made for a formidable portrait; she dressed conservatively, her clothes emphasizing her tall stature, and she almost exclusively wore large men’s boots. She took a number of self-portraits, all of which reinforce descriptions of her from the dozens of children she took care of. Although her photographs encompass an enormous range of subjects, many of who are paradigms of the 1950s style, she refused to conform to the prescribed delicacies of feminine fashion. Maier took her own portrait many times, and always in innovative, creative ways. Her self-portraits consist of her own reflection in curved disk mirrors, puddles, shop windows, and hubcaps. In one particularly impressive feat of impeccable timing, she captured her own reflection in a full-length mirror being carried by a man into a moving truck. She is perfectly centered, holding her camera in front of her, with a rarely seen and almost Mona Lisa-esque smile on her face (Self-Portrait, New York, Feb. 3, 1955). Although most who knew Maier described her as a deeply private person, her self-portraits reveal a personal side of her that could not have possibly been on constant public display. There is a certain level of intimacy in the thoughtful composition of each portrait she took, self and otherwise, which is difficult to capture in candid photos.
Additionally, the type of camera she used (Rolleiflex) had the viewfinder on top, which made the photographer look down, frame the shot, and then press the shutter. It was the perfect stealth camera, allowing photos to be surreptitiously captured with the camera at waist height, instead of eye level. Because of this, most of Maier’s portraits feature the subject looking up, presumably at her face, and above the image.
Through her work as a live-in nanny, Maier was afforded dependable housing and a modest salary with which to support her photography. In an interview, one of her previous employers said, “she felt it gave her a certain amount of freedom. She had free time for her photographic endeavors.” (Finding Vivian Maier) Leisure time has traditionally been a staple in the lives of all artists, and Vivian Maier was no exception. She had a ‘room of her own’, as Virginia Woolf prescribed. Her family hadn’t been a part of her life since her youth, nor did she ever have any close friends. Although she had a definite charisma when photographing her subjects on the street, she always kept people at arm’s length.
Oftentimes, she would bring the children she nannied along on her excursions into the city in search of people to photograph. A recent documentary made about her life and work features numerous interviews with the children she nannied and the parents she worked for. They compare her to a bizarre Mary Poppins, and they all have their own unique Vivian anecdotes. One of them recalls spending an entire afternoon on a street corner with her while she photographed a pile of naked mannequin body parts. According to Maier’s former charges, “life was more adventurous with her.” The parents all remember the certain way she had with their children. “She was wonderful to the children”, explains one mother, “they loved her, and she loved them. They worshipped her.” (Finding Vivian Maier) Three boys she nannied formed such an attachment to her that they provided her with an apartment and enough money to get by once she became too old to work. A fall in 2008 caused Maier’s health to decline rapidly until she passed away in the spring of 2009, leaving behind an enormous body or work scattered across various storage facilities. Her boxes of negatives might have never been discovered if not for a young bidder at an auction named John Maloof, who purchased her boxes and discovered the photos. Now the photos are being developed and archived, one by one, by a team in Chicago.
Upon seeing her photos, one can’t help but wonder, how could she have been so talented and never share her art with anyone? “Something was wrong”, says an acquaintance in an interview, “there’s a piece of the puzzle missing.” (Finding Vivian Maier) There are dozens of theories about why she never shared her work; some think it was because she didn’t have the financial means, others believe it was her intense privacy. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that Vivian Maier never published, shared, or often even developed the photos she took. It remains unknown what she would think if she knew that, less than five years after her death, her work would become a national sensation, with three books and a documentary about her and her photography. Whatever her reaction might have been, the posthumous discovery of her work is an indisputable gift to the street photography world.
For more information and photos, visit the Vivian Maier website
Finding Vivian Maier. Dir. Maloof, John, and Siskel, Charlie. Sundance Selects and
Ravine Pictures, 2013. Film.
Ed. John Maloof. Maier, Vivian. Vivian Maier, Street Photographer. New York:
powerHouse books, 2011. Print.
Maier, Vivian. Untitled. Man on Horse. Undated. New York, NY. Photograph.
Maier, Vivian. Untitled. Self-Portrait. 3 February 1955. New York, NY. Photograph.
Maier, Vivian. Untitled. Man. May 1953. New York, NY. Photograph.
Maier, Vivian. Untitled. Nixon Girls. Undated. No location. Photograph.
Maier, Vivian. Untitled. Woman. 16 May 1957. Chicago, IL. Photograph.