Celebrating the 'Etceteras' of the World--Newly Discovered Photography of Vivian Maier


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During her life, few knew of Vivian Maier’s photographs. She worked as a nanny for many years  and did not publish her work.  Vivian Maier (1926 –2009) was born in New York but grew up in France, and after returning to the U.S., worked for about forty years as a nanny in Chicago. During those years she took about 100,000 photographs, primarily of people and cityscapes most often in Chicago, although she traveled and photographed worldwide.

The Chicago History Museum is currently showing "Vivian Maier’s Chicago." Images for the exhibition come from the Jeffrey Goldstein collection (Vivian Maier Prints Inc.) Acquired in 2010, the Goldstein collection includes over 15,000 negatives, 1,000 prints, 30 homemade movies, and numerous slides. They document Vivian’s European years prior to her early 1950s stay in New York continuing through her Chicago years from 1955 into the early 1970s.

Alex Kotlowitz writes in Mother Jones, It is impossible to  get the measure of Vivian Maier's photos without taking stock of her story. She was by all accounts remarkably private, someone who didn't always enjoy the company of other adults. And yet her photographs feel like a celebration of people—a celebration of what Studs Terkel, the late grand oral historian, liked to call "the etceteras" of the world. (One photography scholar I spoke with suggested Terkel and Maier would have made a formidable pair, like James Agee and Walker Evans.) Her subjects are often caught looking directly at the camera, apparently making eye contact with Maier, but she used a Rolleiflex, a box-shaped camera that requires the photographer to look downwards through the viewfinder. In other words, as it turns out, Maier didn't need to directly engage with her subjects, and many undoubtedly were unaware that she was, in fact, memorializing their images."

Her photographs remained unknown and mostly undeveloped and unprinted until they were discovered by a Chicago  historian, John Maloof, in 2007. Following Maier's death, her work began to receive critical acclaim. Her photographs have been exhibited in the US, England, Germany, Denmark, and Norway, and have appeared in newspapers and magazines in the U.S., England, Germany, Italy, France and other countries. A book of her photography titled “Vivian Maier: Street Photographer” was published in 2011.

In 1951, at 25, Maier moved from France to New York, where she worked for some time in a sweatshop. She was, in the accounts of the families for whom she worked, very private, spending her days off walking the streets of Chicago and taking photographs, most often with a Rolleiflex camera.

John Maloof says, “She was a Socialist, a Feminist, a movie critic, and a tell-it-like-it-is type of person. She learned English by going to theaters, which she loved. She wore a men's jacket, men's shoes and a large hat most of the time. She was constantly taking pictures, which she didn't show anyone.”

As she got older, she collected more boxes of belongings, taking them with her to each new post. At one employer's house, she stored 200 boxes of materials. Most were photographs or negatives, but Maier collected other objects, such as newspapers, and sometimes recorded audiotapes of conversations she had with people she photographed.

According to one newspaper account, “The well-to-do shoppers of Chicago stroll and gossip in all their department-store finery before Maier, but the most arresting subjects are those people on the margins of successful, rich America in the 1950s and 1960s: the kids, the black maids, the bums flaked out on shop stoops.”

Kotlowitz  also writes, “Maier’s work is part of the decades-old genre of street photography, a field that has included such giants as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, and Diane Arbus. (Judging by her collection of books on photography, Maier was likely aware of their work.) These photographers speak to the profoundly democratic impulse to acknowledge that we all have a place—that our stories matter. She took photos of the downtrodden and the well-heeled. She took photos of festive people and people in distress. She took photos of children and the aged. She took photos of whites and blacks (notable, given the times). Her work is marked by serendipity; she appeared to have no agenda, but instead captured what she stumbled upon. Joel Meyerowitz, the co-author of Bystander: A History of Street Photography and a renowned photographer in his own right, says of Maier's images: "They are full of wit and surprise and playful spirit...Her basic decent humanism is evident everywhere in her photographs."

To see Maier's work, view the photo gallery »

The “Chicago Tribune” wrote, "Vivian was ahead of everyone," said one curator familiar with her work. "Recording what you do every day, what you see, uploading the results: She did this, in a different way. Truth is, if we cobbled together her thousands and thousands of contact sheets side by side, we'd see the shape of a life."

“One contact sheet shows the Highland Park children she looked after waiting for the school bus, followed by pictures she shot that morning in the Loop: a man outside a theater, construction workers. Another sheet shows the view from the train headed downtown, then pictures of downtown.

“A contact sheet from the 1968 National Democratic Convention shows soldiers, a man watching from the street, students protesting. In that order.”

The article also says, “Maier is thought to have shot a roll of film a day from the '50s to the '70s. With few exceptions — a dead pigeon she photographed several times — "she was a one-shot person," Goldstein said. Her photos, in both Chicago shows, have a traveling, of-the-moment quality. What they don't share is staginess.

Visit your local library for more resources about the career of Vivian Maier.



Vivian Maier: Street Photographer
John Maloof, editor, (2011).

Vivian Maier : out of the shadows
Vivian Maier; Richard Cahan; Michael Williams, (2012).




Photos: Vivian Maier's Street Photography at Chicago Magazine.

Vivian Maier
"Chicago Tonight" WTTW
More background on Vivian Maier, including interviews with John Maloof and some families that Maier worked for.

"Vivian Maier," Chicago Tonight, broadcast by WTTW, December 22, 2010. Retrieved on January 4, 2011

 "Little Miss Big Shot", The Independent (November 1, 2009). Retrieved on January 4, 2011.

O'Donnell, Nora (January 2011). "The Life and Work of Street Photographer Vivian Maier", Chicago Magazine. Retrieved on January 4, 2011.

Houlihan, Mary (January 2, 2011). A developing picture: The story of Vivian Maier , The Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved on January 4, 2011.

 Unfolding the Vivian Maier mystery...", in Vivian Maier - her discovered work, John Maloof's blog for October 22, 2009. Retrieved on Nov. 14, 2009.

6.    Kotlowitz, Alex (May/June 2011). "The Best Street Photographer You've Never Heard Of". Mother Jones. http://motherjones.com/media/2011/04/vivian-maier-john-maloof. Retrieved November 11, 2011.


Vivian Maier website by the Maloof Collection

Vivian Maier Prints Inc. Maier's images from Jeffrey Goldstein's collection.

Vivian Maier, Street Photographer article on Vivian Maier at The Discerning Photographer

Vivian Maier Facebook Page by the Maloof Collection

William Meyers, "The Nanny's Secret". Wall Street Journal, January 3, 2012.

"Vivian Maier: The Unheralded Street Photographer," by David Zax, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2011


  • Finding Vivian Maier, November 18 - December 4, 2010 at The Apartment Gallery (Apartment 02), Oslo, Norway[
  • March 15 - April 30, 2010 at Bruun's Galleri, Århus, Denmark[18]
  • Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer, January 7 - April 3, 2011 at Chicago Cultural Center
  • Twinkle, twinkle, little star..., January 27 - April 28, 2011 at Galerie Hilaneh von Kories, Hamburg, Germany[
  • Vivian Maier, Photographer, April 15 - June 18, 2011 at Russell Bowman Art Advisory, Chicago, Illinois, USA
  • Vivian Maier - A Life Uncovered, July 1–24, 2011 at the London Street Photography Festival, London
  • Vivian Maier, Photographer, July 18, 2011 - December 15, 2011 at Hearst Gallery, New York
  • Vivian Maier - A Life Uncovered, July 29 - September 16, 2011 at Photofusion Gallery, London
  • Vivian Maier, Photographer, September 22 - November 12, 2011 at Stephen Cohen Gallery, Los Angeles
  • December 15, 2011 - February, 2012 at Steven Kasher Gallery, New York, New York[18]
  • December 15, 2011 - January 28, 2012 at Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York[18]
  • Vivian Maier - Hosted by Tim Roth, December 17, 2011 - January 28, 2012 at Merry Karnowsky Gallery, Los Angeles
  • Vivian Maier - Photographs January 27, 2012 - April 7, 2012 at Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta[
  • A la recherche de Vivian Maier (In search of Vivian Maier), June 28 to July 3, 2011, Saint-Julien-en-Champsaur; July 5 to August 5, 2011 at the Gap Library, Gap, Hautes-Alpes, France.




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