Walking down the street in a big city, like here in Chicago, one often notices nothing at all. We are often consumed in where we’ve come from, or where we’re going, to pay any close attention to our surroundings, much less interact with them. But not Vivian Maier, a lower class nanny who always had a camera around her neck and never dared to share one of her hundred thousand photos with anyone. Where we see chaos and crowded streets, she saw the joys of human life. Where we hear a disregarded child’s cries, she saw a mother and a daughter. Where we see nothing, she saw beauty, and fortunately, we were able to discover the stunning photos she kept secret for so long.
Vivian Dorothy Maier was born February 1st, 1926 in New York City, but most of her childhood years were spent in her mother’s home country, France, where she would later on visit twice as an adult. With Maier’s father out of the picture, she lived with her mother and Jeanne Bertrand, an established photographer of the time. It is very likely that Maier learned photography from Bertrand and that she inspired Maier to purchase her first camera in 1949: a Kodak Brownie box. The Kodak camera was difficult to experiment with, having no aperture settings or focus control. In 1952, Maier was finally able to purchase a Rolleiflex camera that would hardly leave her hands once she left the house. Four years later, Maier moved to the suburbs of Chicago where she took on the job of nannying three boys and raising them as if they were her own. The children would later on take care of Maier in her old age in downtown Chicago.
Maier hardly kept in touch with her family, she was often looked at as being a plain, and somewhat odd, nanny. She was tall in stature and often wore men’s shoes. She was known to be highly secretive around the families she lived with as a care taker, and was not one to keep close friends around. But her eccentric personality shone through for the children she loved and cared for. Maier was often known as the ‘Mary Poppins’ of the suburbs and would lead the boys on unconventional outings downtown where she loved to take portraits. She obsessed over her camera, but kept her artistic eye hidden from the world until her death in 2009. Not only did Maier leave behind negatives to develop, but also a vast amount of collected newspapers and letters, as well as voice recordings of political topics with strangers. She kept many personal notes, receipts, and other belongings, as if she were leaving clues for the next person to uncover her hidden life.
The one hundred thousand negatives that were left unseen by others in her lifetime would have been lost forever until a young man named John Maloof happened to be at a local Chicago auction house. A box filled to the brim with thousands of Maier’s undeveloped negatives of Chicago was being auctioned off. Maloof took a chance and purchased the box for around $400. A year later, he began to realize the beauty of the pictures he had stumbled upon. He purchased all other boxes he could get his hands on and was able to save about 90% of Maier’s work within a year. Now, the whole of Vivian Maier’s negatives and slide archive are digitized and saved for high resolution printing. Maloof is now dedicating his time promoting Maier’s work and giving her the fame she never knew in life. In 2013, Maloof directed and filmed Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary of Vivian’s life and how her talent was discovered. The film received a best documentary Oscar nomination while further shedding light on the beauty of
Maier’s 1950’s Chicago photographs.
With each image developed like a gift being opened, Maloof brought to life the spirit of Vivian Maier. Like many famous artists, they were not appreciated until after their lifetime, but they have achieved immortality through the art they gave the world. Vivian Maier, walking along a crowded Chicago, buried a time capsule with each image she took, and perhaps this was her plan all along – to hide her images, so that her fame would come in a time when her images were most needed – a time when Chicago forgets to look at faces and, merely see shapes flitting past. Vivian Maier has given us a gift – the reminder of the human behind every single face.
Daily Mail Reporter. “What the Nanny Saw: Housekeeper's Stunning Images of 1950s Chicago Show Working Life in America in a New Light.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 16 Dec. 2011, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2075228/What-nanny-saw-Housekeepers-stunning-images-1950s-Chicago-working-class-America-new-light.html.
MacDonald, Kerri. “A Peek Into Vivian Maier's Family Album.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Jan. 2016,
Maloof, John. “About Vivian Maier.” Vivian Maier Photographer, www.vivianmaier.com/about-vivian-maier/.
Maloof, John. “History of Vivian Maier.” Vivian Maier Photographer, www.vivianmaier.com/about-vivian-maier/history/.