Vivian Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) was an American amateur street photographer who was born in New York but grew up in France, and after returning to the U.S., worked for about forty years as a nanny in Chicago. During those years she took about 100,000 photographs, primarily of people and cityscapes most often in Chicago, although she traveled worldwide, taking pictures in each location.
Her photographs remained unknown and mostly undeveloped until they were discovered by a local historian in 2007. Following Maier’s death her work began to receive critical acclaim. Her photographs have appeared in newspapers in Italy, Argentina, and England, and have been exhibited alongside other artists’ work in Denmark and Norway; her first solo exhibition is running at the Chicago Cultural Center from January to April 2011.
Maier’s images depict street scenes in Chicago and New York in the 1950s and 1960s. An article in The Independent characterizes her photographs thus:
The well-to-do shoppers of Chicago stroll and gossip in all their department-store finery before Maier, but the most arresting subjects are those people on the margins of successful, rich America in the 1950s and 1960s: the kids, the black maids, the bums flaked out on shop stoops.
Maier’s photographic legacy, in the form of some 100,000 negatives — a large portion in the form of undeveloped rolls — was discovered by 26-year-old real estate agent John Maloof, also president of the Jefferson Park Historical Society in Chicago. While working on a book about the Chicago neighborhood of Portage Park, Maloof bought 30,000 prints and negatives from an auction house that had acquired the photographs from a storage locker that had been sold off when Maier was no longer able to pay her fees. fter purchasing the first collection of Maier photographs in 2007, Maloof acquired the rest from another buyer at the same auction. Maloof discovered Maier’s name at an early stage of his discovery, but was unable to find out more about her until just after her death, when he found an obituary notice in the Chicago Tribune. Her work was first published on the internet in July of 2008 by Ron Slattery who had also purchased a good deal of her work at auction. In 2009, Maloof started to post some of Maier’s photographs on a blog and has announced his intention to publish a book about Maier’s life and photography. The book is scheduled to be released in fall 2011, and a feature-length documentary film about Maier and Maloof’s discovery of her work, titled Finding Vivian Maier, is scheduled for release in 2012.
Maier’s photographs, and the way they were discovered, received international attention in mainstream media.