The (once) hidden art of street photographer Vivian Maier

By Caitlin Kelly

20120415141416My photo, not hers!

Have you seen the terrific documentary “Finding Vivian Maier”?

I finally saw it, and it’s an amazing true story of a French woman who spent most of her life working as a nanny for wealthy Chicago families, all the while shooting film and video, as — self-described — “a sort of spy.”

She lived in a tiny French town and in New York City in earlier years, but mostly lived in her employers’ homes as a way to live more frugally and to partake in family life. She never married or had children of her own and, it seems, was not at all close to her own family.

The film traces her history and interviews many of the people who knew her, from the children she cared for (and sometimes poorly) to their parents to a few of her friends. She was intensely private, insisting that everywhere she lived there were multiple locks on the door to her room.

And it all started with an auction, when the film-maker, John Maloof, bought a box of negatives:

After John Maloof purchased his first home and pursued a career in real estate in 2005, he began to get more involved in the community where he lived. He delved heavily into historic preservation and eventually became the president of the local historical society on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Given that this part of the city is often ignored, he came to believe that by writing a book on the neighborhood, he could work to promote awareness of its often overlooked charm. It was this decision to co-author the book Portage Park that would change his life forever.

The publisher required approximately 220 high-quality vintage photos of the neighborhood for the book. To gather enough images for this project, John and his co-author, Daniel Pogorzelski, were forced to look everywhere for any old photographs good enough to make the cut. The result was a nearly year-long scavenger hunt where they followed lead after lead to compile the pictures needed for the book. It was during this process that John visited a local auction house, RPN, to see if by chance, they would have any material for the book up for auction. Sure enough, he found a box of negatives depicting Chicago in the 60’s. Unable to get a thorough look at its contents, he took a gamble and purchased the box for around $400.

As someone who began her career as a photographer, and whose husband is a career photographer and editor, this story was even more compelling to me. Her images are truly extraordinary, and also now for sale — how sad and ironic that this has happened only after her death.

But Vivian’s story also intrigues me because we know someone personally whose trajectory is somewhat similar — a single European woman who nannied for wealthy families and who is also an artist. Even her first name initial is the same.

If you haven’t watched the film or seen any of Maier’s photos, I urge you to take a look.

Powerful stuff — and a sad, mysterious and memorable story.

15 thoughts on “The (once) hidden art of street photographer Vivian Maier

  1. i would love to see this film, and to see her life’s work. i’d heard a bit about her, but am so curious to learn more about her, what an interesting, fascinating woman she must have been. and all the while, with what i imagine to be an in-the-shadows demeanor, she had access to very intimate scenes. i can’t wait –

  2. I’ve not seen the film yet but just few weeks ago I knew about her thanks to an Italian friend and professional photographer. I was impressed by her unwillingness to show and even to let anyone know about her pictures. Was it a passion? She behaves as if there was something intimate in passion, an attitude that – I have to say – I understand. My friend considers this approach quite a contradiction to photography: which exists to be published not to be kept in secret. I’m curious to know your experience/opinion. If it’s not about documenting, art can be terribly private. Showing it can be like being naked ourselves who made it!:-)

  3. Every time we create art, it’s risky! Then we see what others think or feel — and what if they hate it or ignore it? Does that devalue our effort or skill?

    People’s reactions can be very emotional and completely subjective. I had some truly vicious Amazon “reviews” of my last book and no longer bother to read what anyone says there, positive or negative. The book is out, was well-reviewed and there you go…

    I agree, sometimes it is terrifying to expose your ideas and work. But if you never share it, what is its purpose? Your own pleasure? (Which is fine, of course.) I come from a family of people who made art, film and writing for a living, so we’re all used to it.

  4. This is very intriguing. I checked out the ‘official’ website and was looking around. The trailer for the doc is there too.

    There are some of her pics there and as I was looking I could see in some of the self portraits that later she had a camera that she held to her face.

    Also, many of her subjects obviously knew their pics were being taken.

    There is a photographer doing this kind of thing now. His photo blog is called Humans of New York. With him though, you’ll get a little story under each photo because he has conversations with the people he photographs.

    Thanks for this post. I had not heard of her. I am looking forward to seeing this documentary. Do you know when it will be released?

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