Vivian Maier - The Nanny Camera

Published on 24 June 2024 at 21:42

The mysterious New York nanny who helped shape 20th-century street photography

For much of her life, Vivian Maier was something of a mystery. Her photographic talent went largely unrecognized because she kept her work a secret from most of the people who knew her, including the New York and Chicago families she worked for as a live-in nanny and caregiver. Maier only printed a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of images of bustling city life she snapped with her Rolleiflex and Leica cameras over some five decades, and showed them to almost no one, instead amassing boxes and boxes of negatives and unprocessed film.

Her fame came about posthumously, and only because the contents of her Chicago storge lockers were sold off at auction in 2007, after she had stopped paying the rent.

Anne Morin, curator of the touring exhibition “Vivian Maier: Unseen Work,” places her work on the same level as that of renowned street photographers like Robert Frank and Diane Arbus, and worthy of a place in the history of photography.

Maier started capturing street scenes in the city as a young woman in the 1950s, first borrowing her mother’s Kodak Brownie box camera and then buying her own professional-grade Rolleiflex, which she taught herself to use.

Maier’s name and work first captured the public imagination in 2009, the same year she died in Chicago.

Photographers and critics immediately remarked on Maier’s well-balanced compositions, and her incisive and often humorous view of the people and places she came across.

“The beating heart of the work is the self-representation,” Morin said. Maier’s self-portraits are a stubborn insistence in declaring her independence and identity, at a time when women, and especially domestic workers like her, were ignored and marginalized. “She wanted to record that,” Morin said, imagining Maier as saying: “I’m here at this moment. No one will erase my face. I exist and I have the proof.”