Vivian Maier and the discovery that shook the art world

Vivian Maier (1926-2009), who made her living as a nanny, quickly became a household name when her previously unknown supply of a hundred thousand photographs was discovered in 2007. 

© Vivian Maier

Finding Vivian Maier is a 2013 documentary film about the American photographer and her unique life story. Maier’s talent and insightful, curious eye for photography has earned her a posthumous reputation as one of America’s most remarkable street photographers.

The documentary film is directed by Charlie Siskel and John Maloof. In 2007, Maloof happened to bid on a box of negatives when looking for archival photography of his Chicago neighborhood for a history book he was working on. As the photographs were not what he was looking for, Maloof did not end up developing them until two years later out of curiosity. This is when he discovered a stash of over a hundred thousand undeveloped photos, as well as home movies and audio recordings which provided unique insights into life on the streets of Chicago and New York in the second half of the twentieth century.

© Vivian Maier

These photographs were by Vivian Maier, career nanny who had never showed these remarkably professional photographs to anyone and about whom there was little to no information available at first. Recurring themes in Vivian Maier’s work are street photography, portraits of strangers and the world of children, which was familiar to her. Maier also recorded herself in her photographs, often either through a reflective surface or as a shadow in the corner of the picture.

“We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel – you get on, you go to the end, and someone else has the same opportunity to go to the end, and so on, and somebody else takes their place. There’s nothing new under the sun. »

– Vivian Maier

The documentary travels back and forth from New York to France to Chicago as it traces the life story of the late Vivian Maier. Maloof tracks many of the families by whom Maier was employed. There are interviews from children she cared for, as well as her neighbors. Accounts of her personality are varied but all of them agree on her solitary nature and obsession with taking photographs. Most of the people she knew seemed to have no idea she was a great artist as she took this secret to her grave. As there is little to no information available on Vivian Maier, the documentary feels less like a biography and more like a forensic study that tries to piece together her personality by interviewing those who knew her during her lifetime as well as using Maier’s own photographs, film footage and audio tapes.

© Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier’s story is so unique and compelling that a documentary film about her life will almost certainly be an interesting watch. Finding Vivian Maier manages to cover her life very extensively, almost to the point where it is questionable whether one should dig so deep into the personal life of someone who is known to have been a very reclusive and private person. Maier’s artistic legacy, however, remains something we should discuss and share, as it is a fascinating documentation of urban America and because of the unique eye she had for photography. Exhibitions with Maier’s work gave been held in museums and galleries all around the world, several books have been published about her and she is often compared to other giants of street photography such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus.

If you’re in Paris this autumn, you have a chance to see Vivian Maier’s photography for yourself at the Musée du Luxembourg’s exhibition on the photographer. The exhibition is on view until the 16th of January.

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