Vivian Maier was almost never found

Art 5 min read

Artists tell stories. Vivian Maier never got to tell hers while she was alive. Instead during her life, she opted to tell the stories of others. A nanny by trade, a street photographer by hobby, Vivian Maier died with over 150,000 unpublished photos to her name - and that’s it. Mostly based in New York and Chicago, Maier captured images of the jostling cities and their at-the-time normal events, immortalizing the lived experience of US megacities’ citizens in the mid-to-late 20th Century.

Self Portrait - Vivian Maier (1954)

Maier’s Life

There are few things about Maier’s life we know for certain. Vivian was born in New York City on February 1st, 1929 to a French mother. Shortly after her birth, they would go back to France, eventually returning to New York for a brief period in 1939. In 1951, Maier would make the trip alone back to New York where she would live until her move to Chicago in 1956. Here, she would continue to be the “Mary Poppins” nanny of three boys, highlighting her trips in her now-iconic works.

And those are just about the only things that are certain. In 2007, John Maloof, a photo collector writing a book on historic Chicago, blindly purchased a box full of negatives from a storage auction. Unknowingly, he had purchased a lot from Vivian Maier’s storage facility, which she had ceased to make payments on in her old age. After developing some of the photos and recognizing their immense beauty, he acquired more of her photos from a different buyer at the same auction. Mystified by this enigmatic auteur he had stumbled upon, Maloof searched for further information about who Vivian Maier was; unfortunately, he was unable to find any details about her until a final Google search in 2009 revealed her death just two months prior – starting the hunt to tell Maier’s story.

Maloof’s search was compiled into the 2013 documentary, Finding Vivian Maier. While the documentary aims to uncover the life of the nanny, the search ends with more questions than answers. Later, the more comprehensive Vivian Maier Developed: The Untold Story of the Photographer Nanny book was published in 2023. The work took genealogy and family records along with an in-depth analysis into her 140,000 photos to shed light into Maier’s world of mystery.

Her Work

Maier’s timelessness starts with her subjects. Her captures of the poor, children and the “average person” illuminates a side of 60s Chicago rarely shown before. This realness captivates the viewer with a rare intimacy of the normal. Today, its easy to find glamorous photos of Chicago’s Skyline and the historic State Street, but it’s not authentic. Most history serves as a highlight told by the winners, forever excluding the emotion and complexities of real life. Maier’s work is a time capsule of real lives, creating a gateway for audiences to realize some things never change.

Aside from her diverse catalog of emotions, Maier’s ability to capture raw emotion adds to her timelessness. She never backed down from intimacy, oftentimes capturing moments that throws the audience into her eyes. She used simplicity to convey pathos, Maier captured images of elderly love, childlike curiosity and human connection frequently. Her eye for simple photos and emotion provides the audience a genuine emotional connection to 60s and 70s Chicago. She shows elements that could easily have been lost in the annals of history.

Not only did she paint pictures of real emotion, she chronicled the pulse of the nation. Whether its the street-style recreation of Marylyn Monroe’s iconic shot or her frequent capture of newspapers, it displays an artist in-tune with her time. Maier’s captures of the working class on the streets of Chicago and New York provide a unique, high-quality snapshot into real life at a time where photos were only taken by the wealthy.

Maier’s later-in-life colored photos show yet another side of Maier. Her use and capture of bright colors shows an artist with an affinity for vibrance. She loved bright fashion, a side of the city fashion rarely represented in street photography at the time. Her captures of complimentary colors spans outfits, flowers and social settings. This period of hers adds a sense of liveliness to her work, a feeling that’s rarely authentic in historic captures of the cities.

Legacy of Her Works

Maier’s story is one that leaves more questions than answers. With Maier’s before-fame passing, the questions keep piling on. But now, they shift to questions of legacy rights. Who has the rights to her iconic catalogue? Who is responsible for managing her post-mortem millions? And more importantly, is this what the reclusive Vivian Maier would have wanted?

Currently, Maloof owns the rights to over 90% of Maier’s total outputs. He uses his majority ownership to tell her story, creating collections and distributing to museums across the globe. Despite international success, Maloof cannot sell her works. Although Maloof owns the physical copies of Maier’s work, copyright rights for the content of the photos withstand the authors passing for 70 years, unless otherwise stated in the will. Due to this, her work and legacy is protected from complete private ownership.

With Maier’s passing before her superstardom, one can’t help but wonder if this what she would have wanted with her thousands of works. In her life, Maier was reclusive. The people closest her always saw her and her trademarked camera, but never saw the works her camera produced. She was an intensely private person, and as evidenced by her mysterious behavior, never let anyone get too close. The intimacy of her works shows a side of Maier she never let come to life.

Personally, I think this adds to her legend. In her life, no one got to truly know Vivian Maier. In viewing her thousands of photos the audience feels privy to parts of her it feels we weren’t supposed to see, adding to her intrigue. While her photos characterize the artist more than she ever would allow while she was alive, it promotes an air of mystery atop of her incredible snapshots into 60s America, creating a sense of mysticism around her works. In a world where everything needs a reason and a motive, Vivian Maier’s is one that gets more perplexing the more you analyze it. It’s unlikely anyone will ever know the true Vivian Maier, but no one was supposed to. Some things are simply better as a mystery.

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