The secret of Vivian Maier

“Well, I suppose nothing is meant to last forever. We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel. You get on, you have to go to the end. And then somebody has the same opportunity to go to the end and so on.”Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) was an American street photographer born in New York City. Although born in the U.S., it was in France that Maier spent most of her youth. Maier returned to the U.S. in 1951 where she took up work as a nanny and care-giver for the rest of her life. In her leisure however, Maier had begun to venture into the art of photography. Consistently taking photos over the course of five decades, she would ultimately leave over 100,000 negatives, most of them shot in Chicago and New York City. Vivian would further indulge in her passionate devotion to documenting the world around her through homemade films, recordings and collections, assembling one of the most fascinating windows into American life in the second half of the twentieth century.

Sometime in 1949, while still in France, Vivian began toying with her first photos. Her camera was a modest Kodak Brownie box camera, an amateur camera with only one shutter speed, no focus control, and no aperture dial.

In 1952, Vivian purchases a Rolleiflex camera to fulfill her fixation.

In 1956, when Maier moved to Chicago, she enjoyed the luxury of a darkroom as well as a private bathroom. This allowed her to process her prints and develop her own rolls of B&W film. As the children entered adulthood, the end of Maier’s employment from that first Chicago family in the early seventies forced her to abandon developing her own film. As she would move from family to family, her rolls of undeveloped, unprinted work began to collect.

It was around this time that Maier decided to switch to color photography, shooting on mostly Kodak Ektachrome 35mm film, using a Leica IIIc, and various German SLR cameras. The color work would have an edge to it that hadn’t been visible in Maier’s work before that, and it became more abstract as time went on. People slowly crept out of her photos to be replaced with found objects, newspapers, and graffiti.

Similarly, her work was showing a compulsion to save items she would find in garbage cans or lying beside the curb.

In the 1980s Vivian would face another challenge with her work. Financial stress and lack of stability would once again put her processing on hold and the color Ektachrome rolls began to pile. Sometime between the late 1990’s and the first years of the new millennium, Vivian would put down her camera and keep her belongings in storage while she tried to stay afloat. She bounced from homelessness to a small studio apartment the Gensburgs helped pay for. With meager means, the photographs in storage became lost memories until they were sold off due to non-payment of rent in 2007. The negatives were auctioned off by the storage company to RPN Sales, who parted out the boxes in a much larger auction to several buyers including John Maloof.

In 2008 Vivian fell on a patch of ice and hit her head in downtown Chicago. Although she was expected to make a full recovery, her health began to deteriorate, forcing Vivian into a nursing home. She passed away a short time later in April of 2009, leaving behind her immense archive of work…

Vivian Maier, Photographer