Vivian Maier, the unknown street photographer

Last year I wrote a blog on Vivian Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) who  worked as a nanny in Chicago, and in her spare time photographed the streets of  the city.

I read in The New Yorker that John Maloof had published a book Vivian Maier: Street Photographer” so I googled her name and discovered that there have been at least a dozen exhibitions of her photos in New York, Norway, Denmark, Chicago, Germany, London, France,  and LA (which I’m very frustrated to say I missed.)

Below is a slide show of some of her photos.

If you don’t know the story:

When Vivian Maier died she left about three thousand prints, one hundred thousand negatives, and at least a thousand rolls of undeveloped film in an unclaimed storage locker in Chicago, which John Maloof bought at an auction for $300 without having any knowledge of the photographer.  Because there were so many self portraits, it didn’t take him long to discover that the photographer was a female,  though it took some time to learn her name.

Genius Mary Poppins-esque Photographer Discovered Post Mortem

“When I found her name written with pencil on a photo-lab envelope, about a year after I purchased the negatives, I decided to ‘Google’ her, only to find her obituary placed the day before my search.

She’d passed away only a couple of days before.”

Vivian Maier worked as a nanny in Chicago in the 1950′s-1960′s and on on Sundays,  her day off, went out into the Chicago streets with her camera. At Central Camera, the plus one-hundred-year-old camera shop in Chicago where Vivian purchased her film,  they commented that she was a “keep your distance from me” type of person.

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36 Responses to Vivian Maier, the unknown street photographer

  1. Val says:

    My internet connection is too weak at the moment for me to watch this, so I’ll come and see it again later (though I’m pretty sure I’ve seen some of her photos before and may even have a link to them bookmarked) but thanks for this, Rosie.

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Val,
      I can’t remember when we became blogging buddies, perhaps you saw her pictures when I wrote the blog on her last year? I do hope your internet connection improved and you were able to see the pictures.

  2. nanny says:

    Thanks for the great post. It reminds me that I have to bring more structure in to my blogging. Your blog is very interesting. Please let me know how to go for your rss blog.

  3. shoreacres says:

    Someone posted about Maier in the past week or so, or she was mentioned in a comment I read. I just spent fifteen minutes trying to find it and couldn’t – so I decided to focus on your entry instead.

    It’s a fascinating story. Don’t you wonder how many trunks filled with genius are just sitting around, waiting? Even trunks filled with ordinary history are pretty interesting – it must have been something to come across this.

    If she truly was a “keep your distance” type of person, it may be good that the discovery came after her death. But how ironic that a “keep your distance” sort would be a street photographer, overcoming the distance between herself and all the others around her. Perhaps her photography was her way of bridging the distances she was unable to do in person.

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Linda,
      I wrote the post about Vivian Maier last year when I saw her amazing photos and heard the story how John Maloof had paid $300 for a box of negatives by an unknown photographer, and had then spent all those months trying to find out the photographer’s name.

      Those pictures were {{this}} close to being thrown in the dumpster. I’m sure most photos found in storage lockers are just thrown away.

      I think it may not be unusual for photographers to be “keep your distance” type of people, because they don’t have to say anything while hiding behind their cameras…

      • dearrosie says:

        Hi Linda,
        I wanted to let you know that I saw John Maloof’s documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” today. I highly recommend it. I hope it comes to a movie theater in Houston.

        I think it was a good thing that the photos were found after her death because I don’t think someone as secretive and strange would’ve been able to cope with the sudden fame that her photos have brought her. John Maloof has done a remarkable amount of research so we do learn something about the real Vivian behind the camera.
        She worked as a nanny because it gave her freedom to go out with her camera and “spy” on the world. Someone interviewed on the movie recalled asking her what work she did, and that her reply was: “I’m a sort of a spy…)”

  4. What an amazing story! It was a stroke of synchronicity that Vivian Maier’s photos found their way into the hands of John Maloof. Think if someone else had bought her collection and thrown them all away, someone who didn’t understand what had come into his or her safekeeping…

    I can’t help drawing a comparison with another “keep your distance from me” genius, Emily Dickinson, whose work (poetry) was also undiscovered until after her death.

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Barbara,
      I think I read somewhere that John Maloof was researching a story about the history of Chicago and that’s why he bought the photos and persevered with the research. It would be wonderful if he finds this post and leaves a comment.

      Wow interesting to compare her to Emily Dickinson.

  5. souldipper says:

    Wow, I’m entranced. I have to sit with all of this. Imagine! I can understand your sorrow to have missed showings.

  6. aFrankAngle says:

    Interesting story. Although I haven’t heard of her, her picture is a time machine of the people in a time gone by. Thanks for sharing this and thanks for stopping by my blog.

    • dearrosie says:

      It’s a good lesson for all of us not to throw “old junk” away before we check it out.

      You were meant to hear about Vivian Maier and see her photos. Because you visited my blog and ticked the like button, I went to your blog, so you came back here and discovered her. What a nice circle.

  7. Thank you for taking the time to write about her, bring her to our attention and upload the fascinating slide show. It appears she took pictures outside of Chicago too, with the one focused on Ms. Liberty’s arm. Interesting she worked as a nanny which explains several of her subjects that focused on children or taken from their level. After going to Maloof’s website, it seems he was hoping to purchase some period pictures of Chicago for a book he was writing and uncovered much more. Apparently, she worked as a nanny for Phil Donahue to look after his four boys in the 70’s. Except for going out to take these pictures, gain the trust of some prominent families who entrusted their children to her, she seems rather reclusive and not much is known about her. Fascinting.

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Georgette,
      I wonder why she took so many photos of herself. I’ve never taken one of myself. (But lucky for us she did so Maloof could identify her.)

      If you went to Maloof’s website did you see that she was penniless near the end, and some of “her” kids came forward to help support her. She had no extra money to pay for the storage locker, but why didn’t she tell the kids about her photos? It’s fascinating that someone with so much talent would think her photos weren’t good enough.

      • dearrosie says:

        Hi Georgette,
        Wanted to let you know that I saw John Maloof’s documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” today. Do look out for it. I highly recommend it.
        She was a reclusive secretive strange woman who worked as a nanny – because it gave her freedom to go out with her camera and “spy” on the world. (When someone on the movie asked her what work she did she said “I’m a sort of a spy…)”

  8. Arindam says:

    Thank you for sharing the story of such a great lady. I always wonder, how talented people like Vivian Maier remain unnoticed, when they are alive. We only realize their worth, only after they leave us. It really feels bad.

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Arindam,
      Vivian Maier lived such a lonely life. I’m sure the families she worked for had no idea she even owned a camera!

      What I’d like to know is why she had such a low self image. There were other female photographers working in the 1940s i.e. Dorothea Lange, Helen Levitt, Margaret Bourke-White (when she took that famous photo of Gandhi spinning, he made her learn to spin first).

  9. magsx2 says:

    Hi,
    What a fantastic slideshow of her photos. Thank goodness all this at least went to auction, so many people just throw things out these days without a second thought.
    It was a shame that he didn’t find out who she was before her passing.

  10. How do you come up with this stuff? Your blog is like a global newspaper.. keep it up, Rosie!

  11. munchow says:

    You have already found out, but to make it formal: I want to tell you that I have nominated you for the Hug Award, because your are such an inspiration for the whole blog sphere. For more info about the nomination, have a look at my post More Rain.

    • dearrosie says:

      What a lovely surprise. I’m hugely honored to receive such a beautiful award from you. A sincere thank you Otto.

      Thank you too for taking the trouble to remind me that my prize was waiting. We’re quits now eh?

  12. Sybil says:

    Perhaps taking photos was her only way of relating to the world around her …

  13. Priya says:

    I wonder if “keep your distance from me” helped her hone her perception better. The pictures are awesome, without anyone having to acknowledge the fact.

    • dearrosie says:

      It’s an interesting thought Priya. If a keep your distance person hides behind a camera will she get better photos than a friendly person?

      • Priya says:

        I do not know about better, but I do know that she’ll spend her time and energies (on and off the camera) on being more receptive to things, actions — ‘vibes’ — than the less recluse are. Socialisation is such a good thing, but an overt practice of it can make the ‘sixth’ sense a little blunt…

      • dearrosie says:

        Don’t you think it would be interesting if two photographers – one reclusive and one friendly – went out together, and photographed the same scene.

  14. I love the photo of the french fries, the old woman with a cane, and the little hand clutching a man’s striped coat — plus, the piano track on the video was great! I am so happy you shared this, Rosie!! (How wild that Maloof bought all those photos at auction without seeing them — what instinct!!)

    • dearrosie says:

      I had to go back and check the ones you liked Betty. Aren’t they lovely! I’d love to hang most of her photos on my wall, yet she didn’t think they were any good …

      I wonder whether it was instinct or just “luck that led Maloof to buy the photos.

  15. Rosie, I would love to see one of her exhibitions, so if you ever hear of one near me, let me know! I’ll keep an eye out too. 🙂

    • dearrosie says:

      Greetings and welcome Cathy.
      I’m so frustrated that I missed the exhibition of Vivian Maier’s photos when it came to L.A. so we must both keep our eyes and ears open for forthcoming exhibitions. In the meantime I highly recommend you go see John Maloof’s documentary “Finding Vivian Maier”. I saw it this afternoon so it should be playing in your part of the country.
      She was a reclusive secretive strange woman who worked as a nanny – because it gave her freedom to go out with her camera and “spy” on the world. When someone on the movie asked her what work she did she said “I’m a sort of a spy…” 😀

      • Hey Rosie, I just saw the movie this weekend. It was fabulous! She had a few strange things about her though, didn’t she, at least according to some of the children she nannied for!! 🙂

      • dearrosie says:

        Hi Cathy,
        So glad to hear you saw the movie. She wasn’t Mary Poppins that’s for sure!

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