Vivian Maier took more than 150,000 photographs during her life, most of which can hold their own when compared to the works of Annie Liebowitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Diane Arbus. Why, then, did we only start hearing her name a decade ago?
Vivian is what Mary Poppins would have been if she had pulled a camera out of her carpet bag and had gone wandering through Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and further afield.
Before Taking Photographs
Born on 1 February 1926, Vivian Dorothy Maier was born to a French mother and an Austrian father in New York City. Her early childhood was divided between the USA and France, where she and her mother lived near relatives in the village of Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur.
They return to the USA in 1930. That year’s census reveals that her father, Charles ‘Wilhelm’ Maier, had left her mother, Maria Jaussard Justin. By 1940, Vivian Maier’s father and mother had reunited. However, in a move as unexpected as some of the surprises that happen when you place eSports bets online, Vivian returned to France a few years later.
The Photographer Nanny
In 1951, a 25-year-old Vivian Maier returned to New York. After working in a sweatshop for five years, she moved to Chicago’s North Shore. She would spend the next 40 years of her life there, working as a nanny and as a carer.
In 1952, Vivian purchased a Rolleiflex camera for the first time. It marked the beginning of what would become her only known passion in life, namely street photography. Through her life, she would use Rolleiflex cameras such as the 3.5F, the 2.8C, the Automat, and other models, as well as SLR cameras such as the Leica Illc, the Zeiss Contarex, and the Ihagee Exakta.
In the 2013 documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, some of the people she had looked after as children in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s described how her camera was an ever-present feature on outings. They would visit the centre of Chicago as well as the city’s rougher neighbourhoods.
One of the highlights of Vivian’s life was a trip around the world in 1959 and 1960. Most likely paid for by the sale of a family farm in France, the trip gave her the chance to take photos in Bangkok, Beijing, Egypt, India, Italy, Los Angeles, Manila, Shanghai, and Syria.
Later Life and Legacy
Vivian Maier never intended to share her photographs with the world. Instead, she kept them in storage. She became destitute as she got older, although the Gensburg brothers whom she had cared for as children did arrange for her to live in a nice apartment in Rogers Park, Chicago.
During that time, she defaulted on payments for the storage facility, and so her possessions in the facility were auctioned off; a move that ultimately was responsible for introducing the world to Vivian Maier the photographer.
In 2008, Vivian slipped on ice and hit her head. She never recovered properly, so she was taken to a nursing home in January 2009. She passed away on 21 April that year.