Vivian Maier may have been virtually unknown during her lifetime, but she will go down in history as one of the most iconic photographers alongside the names of masters like Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The subject of an Academy Award-nominated documentary titled Finding Vivian Maier, Maier and her story have fascinated the public since her impressive body of work was unearthed and spread like wildfire across the internet several years ago. Although the documentary didn’t take home the coveted Oscar this past Sunday, fans of Maier everywhere can rest assured knowing that the woman behind the camera has achieved the recognition that her remarkable talents deserve.
Born on February 1, 1926 to a French mother and an Austrian father in New York City, Maier spent much of her childhood moving back and forth between France and the United States. In 1956, she settled down in Chicago, where she spent the next 40 years working as a nanny. Later likened to “a real, live Mary Poppins” by one of the children she cared for, Maier was an eccentric, progressive, deeply private person who liked to go on adventures, make up different identities, and take her young charges to grittier areas of Chicago to show them what lay outside their affluent spheres of life.
On her days off, the nanny took to the streets armed with her precious Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera. Over the years, she captured an astounding number of images that provide a glimpse into urban life in the 1950s and ’60s. Mostly black and white, her photos of Chicago, NYC, and other great American cities are beautifully candid in their portrayal of ordinary people. Striking snapshots betray Maier’s wonderful curiosity, spontaneity, and eye for composition as she documented metropolitan architecture, street scenes, and everyday moments. Maier seemed especially drawn to subjects on the margins of wealthy, posh, adult life–a child playing in the dirt, a homeless man rifling through trash, a black maid with lines of exhaustion under her eyes–perhaps feeling some kinship over the shared struggle to get by.
Maier continued photographing into the ’90s, gradually amassing a huge collection of old negatives and undeveloped film that she kept boxed and in storage. As she grew older and poorer, it became increasingly harder for her to stay afloat financially. Just as she was about to be evicted from her cheap home in the suburb of Cicero, the Gensburg brothers–who she had raised as a nanny decades ago–stepped in and arranged for her to live in a better apartment. Things took a downward turn in 2008, when Maier fell on a patch of ice and hit her head one day in downtown Chicago. Although she was expected to make a full recovery, her health began to deteriorate and she was put into a nursing home. Maier passed away on April 21, 2009, leaving behind a vast archive of work that was almost lost forever.
One man is credited for bringing the photographer’s work to light. In 2007, one of Maier’s storage lockers was auctioned off because she failed to make rent. Looking for material on Chicago in the ’60s that he could use for a book, former real estate agent John Maloof purchased a box of Maier’s negatives without knowing the treasure trove that lay inside. He started scanning the images and soon made it his mission to reconstruct her archive and show the world her beautiful snapshots. He managed to save around 90 percent of Maier’s work at the auction, ending up with over 100,000 negatives, while another collector named Jeff Goldstein salvaged the rest. Maloof tried to find out more about the mysterious photographer, but his search results came up with little until he found her obituary online shortly after Maier’s death. In October of that year, Maloof shared the collection he had acquired with the Flickr community, resulting in almost instant viral fame and a frenzied interest in Maier’s life and work.
Now, nearly six years after Maier’s passing, and half a century after some of her most compelling images were taken, the nanny-turned-photographer is celebrated worldwide for her contributions to street photography and documentation of American life. To find out more about Maier, be sure to check out the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, or read more on her official website.