American street photographer Vivien Maier took enigmatic portraits of people of all walks of life across Chicago and New York City over the span of five decades. Her body of work remained largely undiscovered until after her death in 2009.Read More
Maier was born in 1926 in New York. She spent much of her childhood in France before returning to the United States in 1951. Upon her return, she took up a job as a nanny and spent the rest of her life as a caregiver, taking her iconic photographs of people on the streets during her leisure time.
Maier began her interest in photography in 1949 while she was still living in France. At the time, she operated the amateur Kodak Brownie camera which had limited functionality and no focus control. In 1952, she began using a Rolleiflex camera and later on used a Leica IIIc, and various German SLR cameras. Throughout her life, Maier often photographed in black and white though went on to work in colour and video by the 80s and 90s.
In 1956, Maier processed many of her black and white photographs from the comfort of a private bathroom in the house of the family she was nannying for in Chicago. When she was relieved of her duties in the early 70s, the artist abandoned developing her own film, amassing a large collection of undeveloped negatives and unprinted work.
Maier passed away in 2009, leaving behind over 100,000 negatives shot between Chicago and New York City and rolls of undeveloped 8mm and 16mm footage. Her photographs and body of work remained largely unknown until former real estate agent John Maloof purchased a box of her negatives in a blind auction in 2007. He later went on to produce the Oscar-nominated documentary Finding Vivian Maier in 2013.
The subjects of Vivian Maier's photographs are mainly people she encountered while taking walks. In her images, these figures often foreground concrete structures such as skyscrapers, paved roads, and shopfronts. Sometimes, when taking portraits, the subjects are caught looking straight into the camera, yet with a vantage point from below as was usual for a Rolleiflex.
Maier took photographs during her leisure time, but also when she was walking with the children that she nannied for. She carried her camera daily, never missing the opportunity to shoot a dynamic scene in the city.
In many of her images, Maier catches her subjects appearing to be in mid-thought, candidly going about their daily routines. In one photograph, she captures a sleeping man in a convertible. In another, she takes a snapshot of two elderly women, arms interlocked, and appearing in a rush. Maier has a special affinity for children in her photography, although in general has taken portraits of people from all ages and walks of life: from the poor to the rich, capturing a range of emotions and ethnicities.
Maier lived a distinctively private life. Throughout her life, she refused to show her photographs to her friends, family, and employers. Many accounts of Maier have described her as reclusive, yet much of her archive features carefully composed and structured self-portraits.
Maier's dynamic self-portraits place and anchor her amidst the energetic city. She has often photographed her own shadow, accentuated by the silhouette of her hats and coats. In other images, she captures both her reflection through a window and the person on the other side. She has also taken her reflection from mirrors in corner stores, streets, and antique shops.
Vivian Maier never exhibited her photographs during her life. She gained popularity posthumously and has since been exhibited at the London Street Photography Festival; Hasselblad Foundation, Sweden; and Sungkok Art Museum, Seoul, among others.
Arianna Mercado | Ocula | 2021