The astonishing story of Vivian Maier
RTE’s Arena arts show recently featured a piece about the extraordinary story of photographer Vivian Maier. She was one of the first street photographers, and created a remarkable, personal archive of images that she kept a secret, to the extent that they nearly went unseen altogether.
Maier’s work was unknown in her own lifetime. She was born in New York City and moved between the US and Europe before settling in NYC in 1951 and then leaving for Chicago in 1956. She spent most of her life working as a nanny and carer, and used her spare time to build up a staggering photographic archive of more than 100,000 negatives, from the 1950s up until the 1990s. She scrupulously hid all of it in storage and her work was only discovered by chance after one of her storage lockers was auctioned off, due to delinquency payments. (In later life, Maier was poor, may have spent some time homeless, and was taken care of by three of the people she had cared for as a nanny.)
One of these storage lockers was bought at a thrift auction, and its contents eventually made it into the hands of John Maloof. He has built up the archive and championed her work, but it was only a few days after she died that he identified her as the photographer behind the collection of pictures.
A handsome new website is now online, which does her pictures some justice, and Maloof’s original blog is still online. There is currently an exhibition of her images at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery in LA, and a documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier, is now in production.
It hardly needs saying, but Maier seems to have been an intensely private person. Maloof says she was a socialist, a feminist and would hold forth on her liberal views. She had a gift for social documentary, and as well as taking pictures, she recorded interviews with some of her subjects. Most of her work is street scenes, and she frequently took pictures of homeless people or others who were marginalised in society, making the archive a brilliantly illustrative record of the development of modern America.
There is a clarity to her images that is uncommon, and her work inevitably recalls that of Henri Cartier-Bresson, but it also carries echoes of Spanish photographer Luis Ramón Marín. He also had an astonishing backstory and, like Maier, his work went undiscovered for decades. It seems a terribly sad story, and there is still so much mystery surrounding Maier, but at least now her images have made it out of the storage boxes and into the limelight they deserve.