The Nanny Can Shoot

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Jun 8, 2013 | By Matthew Ankeny

Vivian Maier, Self-Portrait

In 2007, John Maloof stepped into a Chicago auction house to bid on old photographs. He won a box of dusty negatives, paying only $380. What he unearthed was the unknown collection of Vivian Maier’s photographs, now regarded as one of the finest collections of street photography in the world.

Maier lived in relative obscurity. She had no immediate family, and she earned her living as a nanny. She never married. When she became ill later in life, the only caretakers that came forward were the children for whom she once worked. Now, her name is in conversation with the likes of Henri Cartier-BressonLisette Model and Andre Kertesz.

Vivian Maier was born in New York City in 1926, but grew up mostly in France. She returned to New York in 1951, then moved to Chicago in 1956 to nanny for a family on the North Shore. She was incredibly private—her first request was to put a lock on her door. Her photographs were never shared, even with close friends. By the time she retired her camera in the late 1990s, she had developed over 100,000 negatives. These sat in a storage locker, which she lost because of non-payment. From there, her photos went to auction.

John Maloof, a lay historian of his North Shore neighborhood, quickly discovered he had something good. After starting a blog and posting a discussion to Flickr, Maier’s photos went viral. Maloof continued to reconstruct and catalogue, and now more than 90% of Vivian Maier’s photographs are available. Maloof has published them in a book, and a documentary will be released soon. 

Maier’s work confronts the idea of space. Whether she brings the camera close, or composes an expansive landscape, she is always aware of proximity (to people, found objects, or the links between the two). Each square frame, taken with her Rolleiflex camera, has a story to tell. Even when she moved to color photography later in life, she never lost her knack for near-invasive compositions.

Maier lived a life of artistic solitude. Essentially, she’s the Emily Dickinson of street photography. And, like Dickinson, her limited biography gives more focus to her art. In cases like Maier, her work is more than enough, and we’re happy to unearth her spirit through the art.

All photographs via Vivian Maier.