Vivian Maier

Capturing the World

The discovery of Vivian Maier’s photographs is a sensation and a stroke of luck for the world of photography, and at the same time a fascinating and complex story brimming with surprises and mysteries. It begins with the artist herself: She was a nanny, who worked for decades looking after the children of various families in New York and Chicago, but who spent the last years of her life alone and in very modest circumstances. It only emerged after her death that, similar to the famous character Mary Poppins, she was not only a very unconventional, humorous and slightly eccentric nanny, but also blessed with an exceptional talent – in her case with a photographic ability that was rare, not only for an amateur.

The discovery of Vivian Maier’s estate is also the story of John Maloof, a young real-estate agent and amateur historian from Chicago. At an auction in 2007, he acquired some crates that had been left in storage, in which he hoped to find some historic photographs of the city of Chicago. To his surprise, he instead came across thousands of mainly undeveloped negatives, a photographic treasure, undiscovered, unpublished, unexplored. This led to an extensive examination of the past that kept John Maloof occupied over the following years and still does today. He began to sift through the material to find out more about this person who had taken such fantastic photographs and then left them to their fate in a warehouse. He wanted to bring his discovery to the public eye. But that was not so easy: Owners of other negatives soon came forward, relatives were found and copyright issues had to be settled. A legal dispute ensued.

Vivian Maier’s story is above all one of a brilliant body of photographic work with perceptive and succinct images that attest to their creator’s exceptional observational talent. They impressively reflect urban life on the streets of New York and Chicago in the second half of the 20th century. With an open, inquisitive mind and a keen sense of composition, Vivian Maier focused her camera on the motifs she found on her forages through town. These were mainly people from all cultural and social backgrounds living their everyday lives. And, time and time again, children. The visual language of her pictures is clear and direct. Vivian Maier gives us a sense of her protagonists’ physical presence without infringing on their privacy. This is also true for the many self-portraits she took over the years. The fact that she never showed anybody her photographs suggests that she was happy just to capture the world with her camera. Maybe it also helped her to understand it. As a result, through these anonymous individuals, Vivian Maier’s work also reveals much about the photographer herself.

Biographical information

1926

born in the Bronx, New York, USA, but spends most of her youth with her mother in France

1949

begins taking photographs in France

1951

returns to New York City and works as a nanny and care-giver, taking photographs in her spare time

2009

dies in Chicago;
her work is only discovered posthumously