On the face of it, Vivian Maier led an ordinary, if solitary, existence. A single woman, she worked as a nanny in New York and Chicago and kept to herself. But Maier, who died in 2009 at the age of 83, had a secret passion: photography. A Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex, her constant companion, was the vehicle through which she participated in the multifarious experiences of the two great cities in which she spent most of her life.
And she was good. Damn good.
Like every successful street photographer, Maier approached the world with curiosity, an eye for the composition hidden in everyday visual clutter and a knack for seizing the telling moment. People of all ages and stripes fascinated her: the joyful innocence of children, the passage of time etched on wizened faces, the pensive faces in the lonely crowd. She had a special empathy for those surviving at society’s margins, whose condition foreshadowed her own descent into penury at the end of her life. The image of a homeless man below, curled into an almost fetal position, evokes WPA Depression-era photographs and the figures of Picasso’s Blue Period.
Maier also took pleasure in finding beauty in unexpected places – the unplanned geometries of a pile of crates, say, or, like Aaron Siskind, the peeling signs and paint on urban walls — and humor, too. Brazenly poking her camera through a car window, she captured the strange and amusing perspective below, of a seemingly headless man napping in his vehicle.
Maier never showed her pictures to anyone. She didn’t even develop most of them, perhaps because of the cost involved, perhaps because her principal joy was in the act of taking them. She and her photographs probably would have remained in oblivion had not John Maloof of Chicago bought 30,000 negatives from her storage locker, auctioned because she couldn’t pay the storage fees, in 2007.
Maloof did not find the pictures of a Chicago neighborhood that he was looking for, but he sensed something important about the photographs, an intuition confirmed when he shared some of the images in online chat rooms. Promoting Maier has since become a mission for him. He has purchased most of the contents of the locker: some 100,000 negatives and 1,000 rolls of undeveloped film. Still others are owned by fellow Chicagoan Jeffrey Goldstein, who purchased them from a third party. Both are working to bring Maier’s photography to light and to market. Both have published books, are making films and are exhibiting the work through dealers around the country.
There are, at the moment, Maier exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles and two in Atlanta. Lumière gallery, which represents the Maloof collection, is exhibiting a selection of her street photography as part of “Photography as Propaganda: Street Talk.” Jackson Fine Art, which works with Goldstein, offers a sampling of various genres, as well as vintage photographs printed during Maier’s lifetime.
Lumière’s is the more satisfying visual experience, because one can get close to the pictures; the flat files are in the way at Jackson. But both shows are worth seeing, and both galleries have unframed images they can show you.
Maier’s story is part of her appeal. Who hasn’t dreamed of finding a treasure in the trash? Who isn’t tantalized by the uncovering of a secret life? The excitement brings to mind the discovery of the voluminous oeuvre of visionary artist Henry Darger, another Chicagoan, though the photography books that Maier owned suggest that she, unlike Darger, was aware of the art world that her work is now entering. Adding to the myth, the tall, thin, long-faced nanny conjures up associations with the magical Mary Poppins.
But Cinderella might be the more apt fairy tale here: once a humble domestic, Maier is now mentioned in the same breath with photographic royalty such as Helen Levitt and Harry Callahan. The shoe seems to fit. Maier may well take her place in photography’s pantheon. See for yourself.