by Katie Walker
Vivian Maier, New York born yet of European sensibility, spent a notably private lifetime capturing urban mid-century American life in its rawest form. With a Rolleiflex in hand, Maier captured both the peculiarities and eccentricities around her as well as her own through the plethora of self-portraits in her recently obtained portfolio. There is a certain personality found in Maier’s work, characterized by its attention to both the fleeting moments of northeastern metropolis and the raw emotion of its dwellers.
Most of Maier's encounters with people on the streets of Chicago were up-close-and-personal, each photo portraying her subject in a way that simultaneously emphasized their individuality as well as the universality of the human condition. The consistency and sheer quantity at which she shot created an extensive catalogue of Chicago life, culture, and architecture, making her a pillar of urban history and art. These qualities, along with Maier's keen sense of lighting and angles, and the ability to infuse each photo with her unusual spirit, make her photos particularly striking.
What makes her masterpieces even more exciting is the fact that they appeared out of nowhere, discovered long after her death. Through a long-forgotten storage locker auctioned off to a man oblivious at first to the treasure he had just acquired, thousands of her possessions were unearthed. These included letters, receipts, personal belongings, undeveloped rolls of film, and of course photographic negatives -- tens of thousands of them. Each scanned negative uncovered a new part of her life and the stories she chose to tell through her art, prompting an investigation of her life aided by the people she knew in her days as a nanny. These accounts created nuanced compositions of her life which emphasized her quirks and altogether atypical lifestyle.
Despite the accounts of those who knew her, many details of still remain obscured. Of what we do know, Maier could often be seen shooting rolls of film on outings with the children she cared for, fabricating the spelling of her name, and speaking with an amalgamation of an accent that she picked up from her travels to and from Europe in her early years.
Virtually none of her work was published in her lifetime, making her even more of a mystery-- an enigma of an artist. It is not fully known whether or not the anonymity was self-imposed due to her private nature, or if she was simply too busy creating photographs to get around to printing them. As Maier balanced—and fused— her work as a domestic nanny and freelance photographer, she proved the power of the everyday artist with just a camera and a keen eye, effectively revolutionizing the world of street photography..