Vivian Maier – The greatest street photographer of the 20th century?

February 18, 2011

Vivian Maier self portrait - Copyright of Maloof Collection

I was recently reading the fascinating story of Vivian Maier (1926-2009) and wanted to take a moment talk about her here.

Vivian Maier’s photography has only recently come to light following her death in 2009.  Details are still scarce but it is know that Vivian Maier worked as a nanny in Chicago for approximately 40 years starting in the 1950s.  She was by all accounts a very private individual who would spent much of her free time exploring the streets of Chicago taking photos with her Rolleiflex camera, which she subsequently never showed to anybody.  Oh and it also turns out that she may well have been one of the finest street photographers of the 20 century.

Vivian Maier’s work was discovered at an auction house in Chicago shortly before her death. It is believed that she fell upon hard times later in life and may have actually been homeless for a period of time. It is understod that the photographs and film were recovered from a storage locker when she had failed to maintain the rental fees and were subsequently sold at auction.

The photos were bought by John Maloof in 2007 and consisted of 100’000 medium format negatives, thousands of prints and undeveloped rolls of film.  There is some debate and interest regarding the circumstances surrounding the discovery and emergence of the work shortly after her death and I’m sure that this will continue  for the foreseeable future but what is clear however is that her work is striking and since being made available to the public in 2008/2009 has received critical acclaim.

Vivian Maier’s work consists predominantly of black and white street scenes of Chicago taken during the 1950s and 1960s, often depicting the less privileged individuals of the era.  I easily managed to spend a couple of hours looking at her work on John Maloof’s blog dedicated to Vivian’s work.  The shots are absolutely fascinating, even more so because they are from a period in time that I have did not experience, these shots really give you a feel for and an insight into what life must have been like for some of these people.  

I find it incredible that such a large body of work was possibly never shown to anybody and also sad that this collection may now potentially be worth a fortune but the artist herself may have died without any recognition and very possibly without a penny to her name.

Some examples of Vivian Maier’s work

All photographs taken by Vivian Maier, taken from Copyright of Maloof Collection

Vivian Maier’s work can be seen on John Maloof’s blog and the exciting thing is that there is still plenty more to come in the future as more negatives are developed and uploaded.

There was also an interesting article regarding Vivian Maier on the BBC News site:

Take a look at the official blog and let me know what you think about the work.

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About the author

UK based photographer Mark J P.

  • David

    i chanced upon this show on a visit to Chicago earlier this week. A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!!!
    hard to believe that a photographer of her caliber could pass unnoticed until now. i feel blessed to have seen the show.
    John Maloof is working on a documentary film about Vivian and is seeking support via you can make a contribution and get a copy of the film and/or a forthcoming book.
    Kudos to you Mark for spreading the word about her.

    • Mark

      Thanks for the comment David. I’ll take a look at the Kickstart project, I would absolutely love to see a documentary about her. :)

  • Paul Domenick

    I am just stupefied that a nanny took so many incredibly candid shots during a time when photo-taking was still in its prime. Her photos are really magical. I will dare to say that, to me, her work is much more interesting than Dorothea Lange’s.
    Thanks so much, Mark, for this tip-off.

    • Mark

      Thanks Paul. I thought it was a completely fascinating story too, it’s just so intriguing isn’t it?! :)

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