A few years ago, only a select few of her closest acquaintances would be able to answer that question—and they could only offer glimpses into her deeply reclusive life. But thanks to a posthumous book, a compelling documentary, and a storage locker containing over 100,000 negatives, light is being shed on one of the most prolific (and masterful) photographers ever to walk the streets of Chicago.
Like the central character of any good mystery story, Maier was enigmatic, curious, eccentric, and even progressive. But above all she had an incredible eye for detail. Her oeuvre richly depicts humanity in all of its walks of life, and features everyone from well-to-do ladies draped in furs and pearls to those living in the margins of Chicago and New York City in the 1950s and ‘60s: impoverished homeless, plucky children, and those eking out an existence on the streets. No one was exempt from her inquiring eye. It’s for this reason her photos are so powerful: they arrest one’s attention and instill in the viewer Maier’s boundless curiosity.
Born in New York City in 1926, Maier spent much of her childhood in France. For reasons still unknown, she traveled to Chicago and eventually found her way to the North Shore, where she was employed as a nanny for the Gensburg family, with a brief stint caring for Phil Donahue’s children. But in many ways she was merely moonlighting as a nanny, because at night and on weekends—and sometimes with her employers’ kids in tow—she would document the world through the twin-lens of her Rolleiflex.
Her immense collection of work, discovered by filmmaker and photographer John Maloof in 2007, is now the subject of critical acclaim and worldwide interest. Unfortunately, she would never see it developed: in 2009, Maier passed away quietly, impoverished and obscure at age 83, shortly before her work went viral. Her photography has been exhibited in the US, Europe, and Asia.
In memoriam, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago has created the Vivian Maier Scholarship Fund so that young photographers can receive financial assistance in their pursuit of the art form. It’s an opportunity that Maier, a self-taught artist, could only dream of.