In my circle of design and photographer friends, I was the last to discover Vivian Maier. I saw a few Facebook posts, and knew she was a previously unknown street photographer, and there was a new documentary on her life and work. When the film Finding Vivian Maier came to our independent theater here in Davis, we were first in line. Her story, and her work, is riveting, and I am still intrigued and inspired by the film.
Vivian Maier was a phenomenal street photographer who secretly took over 100,000 photographs from the 1950s through the 1990s. She worked as a nanny and caregiver, and not even those closest to her knew how talented or prolific she was. Her work was secreted away in overflowing storage lockers, and discovered by John Maloof, who first purchased a box of her negatives at an auction in 2007. That purchase changed his life, and also enabled Vivian Maier’s legacy to be shared with the rest of the world.
Maier’s massive body of work reflects urban life in Chicago, and also her solo travels around the world. She was a free spirit, a mystery, and an eccentric, proud and private woman. She was also one of the greatest photography talents of the century. Maloof was responsible for gathering and archiving her work, as well as producing the documentary. It’s his story, as well as hers.
“Someone who was intensely guarded and private, Vivian could be counted on to feistily preach her own very liberal worldview to anyone who cared to listen, or didn’t. Decidedly unmaterialistic, Vivian would come to amass a group of storage lockers stuffed to the brim with found items, art books, newspaper clippings, home films, as well as political tchotchkes and knick-knacks. The story of this nanny who has now wowed the world with her photography, and who incidentally recorded some of the most interesting marvels and peculiarities of Urban America in the second half of the twentieth century is seemingly beyond belief.” – VivianMaier.com
After the film, we spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out the puzzle of Vivian with our friends. They had been studying her work for years, and as professional photographers, were even more amazed than we were (and we were pretty amazed). How could she keep working, never printing or referencing her photos? Why was she so compelled to produce so much? Was it about the process, the taking of the photo itself, and not actually about the finished image? What was she trying to see, to heal? Was she crazy? And why won’t museums embrace her work today?
Vivian looked closely, and captured that moment when the rest of us are looking away. She was complicated, but her work is stunning. Simply stunning.
(All photos by Vivian Maier, from The Maloof Collection)