Vivian Maier (1926-2009) had a talent for seeing. As she walked down the street, she not only avoided bumping into people and objects, she actually saw them in a way most people do not; she saw them in their particularity. We know this because more than 100,000 negatives of photographs she took were somewhat accidentally stumbled upon after her death and now form the basis of two concurrent gallery exhibitions, a photo book and two websites. There was a museum show earlier this year at the Chicago Cultural Center. There will be more. Maier's talent is recognized immediately by those who view her work, something she let no one do in her lifetime. (click below to read more)
Maier was a nanny. Born in New York, her father left the family by the time she was 4, and she spent most of her youth growing up in her mother's native France. At some point she acquired a Kodak Brownie, a very cheap box camera, and began taking pictures. In 1951 she returned to New York with the French accent that never abandoned her. How she maintained herself is uncertain, but several of the pictures now on display at the Greenberg and Kasher galleries were taken in New York over the next five years with a Rolleiflex, the professional 2¼-by-2¼-inch twin-lens reflex she was to use for several decades. Whether Maier studied photography at, say, the New School is not known, but her remarkable talent for street photography was evident. By 1956 she was in Chicago where, except for a few vacations, she spent the rest of her life. And there she worked from 1956 to 1972 for Avron and Nancy Gensburg, taking care of their three boys: John, Lane and Matthew.
Maier continued to work as a nanny or caretaker until she retired sometime in the 1990s. Ms. Gensburg says, "She really wasn't interested in being a nanny at all, but she didn't know how to do anything else." Not all of those employers who have been identified were enamored of her—she was very opinionated and could be rude—but the Gensburg boys adored her. "She was like Mary Poppins," Lane Gensburg says. The boys were delighted when she brought home a dead snake for them to inspect, or took them to see art films, or the Chinese New Year parade, or—a favorite—hunted wild strawberries with them in a nearby forest. On her days off she set out alone (she seems to have had no friends) with her camera dangling around her neck.
In 1987, when she interviewed for a job in Glenview, Ill., with Zalman and Karen Usiskin, Maier told them, "I come with my life, and my life is in boxes." When she showed up to begin work she brought 200 boxes. Some of the boxes held her negatives and photographic equipment, but many of them held newspapers and magazines, which she read voraciously and could not bear to part with. Most of that stuff was in storage lockers when the Gensburg brothers found her living in a cheap apartment in Cicero, Ill., in the late 1990s; they moved her to a nice apartment in Rogers Park, Ill., and continued to look after her. In December 2008, she slipped on some ice, hit her head, and was taken to the emergency room; the Gensburgs saw she had the best doctors and convalesced in a nursing home. In spite of their solicitous care, Maier died on April 20, 2009.
Meanwhile, the rent on the storage lockers had gone unpaid, and their contents were put up for sale. In 2007, John Maloof, a young real-estate agent, bought one of the boxes for $400 because there was a picture of the Loop in it he thought he could use for a book he was writing. Mr. Maloof knew nothing about art photography, but as he went through the 30,000 images in the box he got interested, and educated himself. He tracked down people who had bought other boxes and picked them up. But whose pictures were they? Finally, in April 2009, he found deep in one of the boxes an envelope from a photo lab with "Vivian Maier" penciled on it. A Google search turned up the death notice the Gensburgs had placed in the Chicago Tribune a few days before: "Vivian Maier . . . Second mother to John, Lane and Matthew."
In October 2009, Mr. Maloof posted some of Maier's pictures on Flickr, and since then interest in her work has grown steadily. Besides Mr. Maloof's holdings, Jeff Goldstein, another collector, has about 15,000 negatives. There are still tens of thousands of negatives that have not been scanned, and thousands of rolls of film that were never developed. So, since Maier made very few prints (and those are not especially good), the full extent of her work is unknown. But it is vast, and the best of it is remarkable.
Because she used a medium-format Rollei rather than a 35mm camera, Maier's pictures have more detail than those of most street photographers. Like them, though, her main subject is people she encountered on her outings. Her compositions tend to be straightforward. There are many children and many women—women both young and fashionable and old and haggard. She photographed blacks and the down-and-out, sometimes crumpled on the sidewalk. There are many, many self-portraits in many ingenious permutations, as if she were checking on her own identity or interpolating herself into the environment. A shadowy character, she often photographed her own shadow, possibly as a way of being there and simultaneously not quite there. Her eye picked out interesting junk, reflections, garbage and—in one image—an enormous pile of empty crates that her camera transformed into sculpture. Her work alternately brings to mind Lisette Model, Leon Levinstein, Harry Callahan, Garry Winogrand, Weegee, Helen Levitt and Robert Frank. But the uncracked nut at the core of her mystery is this: Why didn't Vivian Maier show anyone her pictures?