The photographs of Vivian Maier (1926-2009) met with incredible, international posthumous success, in part due to the mystery shrouding their discovery.
Although her American street photography only came to light after her death, the artist never described herself as a photographer, and would never have qualified her pictures as “work”. She lived off her governess salary and seemingly never even attempted to exhibit her photographs. Much of her film was never developed due to a lack of resources. Her work was discovered quite by chance. Near the end of her life, she could no longer afford the rental fees for the storage unit where she kept her boxes of negatives and prints, which were then sold at auction.
It would therefore seem that Vivian Maier’s decision to keep her photography as a hobby rather than a profession was a choice conditioned by her lack of material resources. But her day job fed into her work as a photographer. From 1956 to 1973, the family she worked for gave her a room to use, which she transformed into her very own dark room. The energy she exuded and her quiet, unassuming manner gave her the freedom to get up close and personal with her subjects, without ever drawing unwanted attention or suspicion: who would shy away from a woman, especially one with children?
Vivian Maier’s photographs show the extent to which her relationships with her subjects were shaped by her status as a working‑class woman. She was self-taught, and developed a keen eye that testifies to her sharp social intelligence. Her thousands of photographs of American city-living in the 1950s to 1990s span Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, and acutely capture vignettes of streets, their occupants and interactions, their invisible hierarchies and social geographies. Her self-portraits taken through the medium of shadow and mirrors were less about injecting her own self into her body of work, and more about juxtaposing her image with those of her subjects, thus revealing the social inequalities she saw around her. These contrasts often take the shape of ‘colour coincidences’ in her colour photography.
Cover: Vivian Maier, Chicago, August 1975. © Estate of Vivian Maier. Courtesy of Maloof Collection