Vivian Maier: Portraying American society from the shadows

Vivian Maier guarded more than 120,000 negatives and 2,000 unrevealed reels that she never showed anyone. She had been portraying New York and Chicago for over 40 years.
Self-portrait, undated © Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection

Vivian Maier guarded more than 120,000 negatives and 2,000 unrevealed reels that she never showed anyone. She had been portraying New York and Chicago for over 40 years. The photographer went to the streets with her Rolleiflex camera and captured reality with a careful composition and closeness. Her black and white photos, of great elegance, draw a daily life that becomes art.

Vivian Maier was born on February 1, 1926 in New York. Her childhood transitioned between the United States and France (her mother’s homeland). In 1930, when she was only 4 years old, her father abandoned them and her mother took care of their upbringing.

Self-portrait, undated
© Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection

Her mother, whose name was Marie, was then 32 years old and worked as a private nurse for the family of a photographer who worked in a New Jersey studio: Jeanne Bertrand. It can be understood that Vivian may have had her first contact with a camera at age four, but they are only guesses.

At the age of seven, she traveled to France for the first time to her mother’s town, Saint-Bonnet-e-Champsaur. In 1949, at 23, she returned alone to France to help sell a large property of her great-grandfather, fallen in World War II, and acquire her share of the inheritance. She took the opportunity to know the country and photograph everything with a Kodak Brownie camera.

“We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel. You get on. You go to the end. And someone else has the same opportunity to go to the end. And so on. And somebody else takes their place.”

In 1951, when she was 25 years old, she returned to New York, to the borough of Queens and, as evidenced by her negatives, worked in a candy store and with several families. 

In 1952, she began taking photos with a Rolleiflex camera. She photographed the customs of the families she was with (birthdays and parties) and took pictures on the streets of a city immersed in a paradigm shift for the postwar opportunities, and considered, without doubt, the capital of American photographic culture (at that time, ‘Family of a man’ was exhibited at MoMa, an exhibition that broke all visiting records and considered the most important in the history of photography).

In 1956 Vivian left the east coast moving to Chicago, where she would spend most of the rest of her life working as a nanny. In her spare time, she took photos that she jealously hid from the eyes of others.

She took photographs until the late 1990’s, leaving a ‘portfolio’ that includes more than 120,000 negatives. In addition, Vivian’s passion for documenting led her to create a series of home documentaries and audio recordings. Interesting things about American culture, the demolition of historical monuments for new developments, the invisible lives of ethnic and homeless people, as well as some of Chicago’s most beloved places were meticulously recorded by this photographer.

“Well, I suppose nothing is meant to last forever. We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel. You get on, you have to go to the end. And then somebody has the same opportunity to go to the end and so on.”

Vivian was a lonely woman who traveled throughout the world with her camera in tow (changing her camera models and perfecting her technique) and caught with her objective the vital scenario of men and women from as far away as the Caribbean Islands or Asia. She herself became a model of her photographic work. Her face appears in many snapshots reflected in a mirror that froze for eternity the image of this woman who insisted on hiding her own identity, gave false names wherever she went, and repeatedly refused to sell her art.

In the new century, Vivian Mayer was an impoverished old woman who decided to sell part of her negatives to continue surviving. In an auction held in 2007, several lots were auctioned with what would become the admired work of a photographer who did not want to share her talent with anyone but herself.

Her work was discovered by John Maloof, a local historian and collector from Chicago. His purchase of Maier’s negatives was pure luck. Maloof acquired immense interest since his discovery was about what some people call the best street photographer in the world.

Thus, he began his search for the unknown artist, but unfortunately Vivian Maier died on April 21, 2009, a few days before the set encounter with Maloof.

Currently, her work is archived and cataloged for the enjoyment of others and for future generations. John Maloof is the core of this project and responsible for the reconstruction of most of the archive.

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