Behind the camera: who was Vivian Maier?

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In 2007, the collector Jon Maloof buys a box of old negatives for $380 at a Chicago auction house; he thinks they might come in handy for the historical book he is writing. The negatives were taken by the deceased photographer Vivian Maier. Maloof googles her when he is home and finds nothing. Little did he know that that box would lead him to expose one of America’s most reclusive artists.

This is how Finding Vivian Maier opens, a documentary tracing the life of an eccentric nanny who led a secret life as a street photographer in Chicago and New York. Between the 1950s and 70s, Maier built a body of work of over 100,000 photographs which remained hidden in storage lockers for decades. But the quality of her work was so impressive that these photographs posthumously secured her a seat among the 20th century’s greatest photographers.

The film, currently available on the streaming platform MUBI, was produced by John Maloof himself after he made it his mission to put together the pieces of the artist’s double life. “You always want to know who is behind the work,” he explains in the documentary.

Born in New York City in 1926 to a French mother and an Austrian father, Maier spent her childhood in America and France. She opted for a quiet domestic job as a nanny, which offered her freedom enough to pursue her likely self-taught photography.

Throughout the documentary, the families she worked for remember her reserved and mysterious nature, but also her eccentric and paradoxical ways. Everything in Vivian Maier was part of an extravagant character carefully constructed; from the obsessive hoarding mania of newspapers, coupons, train tickets, and teeth, to the fake French accent she often put on.

Much of Maier’s oddness comes across in her images as well. She would often portray the unpredictable, the incongruous and the humorous: accidental encounters on the city’s streets made up a large part of her work, objects abandoned in a garbage can were her muse, and playful portraits of wayward children or dogs never failed to capture her attention. Her subjects were often mundane, but she managed to ignite an intriguing aura of mystery, concealing their identity or what caused the expressions printed on their faces.

A taste for grotesque and great sensitivity for tragedy also find a place in her photographs. Attracted by urban decay, the misery of poverty and disease, behind her sense of humour she cherished a great understanding of human nature, always able to record outsiders’ private grief with strong empathy but respectful distance.

Other professional photographers and experts called to comment on her work found it beautifully constructed and elevated by a great sense of light. Her references are made clear, a glimmer of Robert Frank, Lisette Model, and Helen Levitt. “She had it all,” says photographer Mary Ellen Mark in Maloof’s film. “Had she made herself known; she would have become a famous photographer.”

But maybe Vivian Maier was more interested in the photographic process than the fame that comes with it. Wearing the Rolleiflex around her neck and taking the children she was nannying on an adventure in the city was her way of experiencing life on the streets with her own eyes. Independence was the most precious virtue to Maier. She never had a problem quitting the employers that complained of her bizarreness, in 1959 she impulsively took off for a year-long trip around the world. Maloof describes her as an “intrepid, very private, yet opinionated and strong woman.”

Thanks to Maloof’s ceaseless work, Maier’s legacy is now secure and her posthumous reputation as one of America’s greatest street photographers included in history books. However, much of the mystery still lives on. What drove her relentless passion? Why she has always kept her photography hidden? Was she ever planning to publish her work? And, above all, why she never put aside her profession to pursue an artistic career?

Many look to Maier’s reserved and secretive nature as the answer, but others believe it was her gender which held her back: “It’s a common story that only small amounts of photographic work by women gets out into the public,” explained photographer Anna Fox in an interview to the British Journal of Photography. “It’s still a male-dominated profession. Exhibitions and publications hardly reference women photographers.”

Female inclusion in visual arts is a longstanding issue that unfortunately today, 40 years later, is still not completely solved. Despite the growing number of female visual artists, galleries and exhibitions are still far from a fair representation. An investigation by ArtnetNews found that just 11% of all art acquisitions at prominent American museums over the past decade have been work by women. In London, 78% of art galleries represent more men than women, according to an audit by the feminist group East London Fawcett.

In such a context, the Vivian Maier’s story speaks to a wider issue in the art world, with female artists and curators still facing like lack of recognition today. Posthumously including work of those like Maier in photography books establishes reference models for future female artists. If you do one thing this weekend, make it discovering Maier’s work.

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