Vivian Maier was one of the great secret artists of the last century. She took more than 150,000 photographs in her lifetime, but hardly showed them to anyone. Maier, who died in 2009, aged 83, had worked for more than 40 years as a nanny for families on Chicago’s North Shore. She was known to the children she looked after as “a real-life Mary Poppins”. On her days off, or on outings with the kids in her charge, she wandered the streets of Chicago with her camera, often interviewing some of the people she photographed.
This picture was among those thousands of negatives, recordings and prints that were discovered only when Maier fell behind on payments for a storage space she rented in Chicago in 2007. The contents of the lock-up were put up for sale and bought by three collectors of photography. One of those collectors, John Maloof, who happened to be researching a book on the history of a particular Chicago suburb, bought 30,000 negatives unseen. When he pieced together a little of Maier’s life he put a selection of her images out on Flickr and they became a viral phenomenon.
Two documentaries and several exhibitions of her work have followed. Her pictures shadowed some of the shifts in the practice and fashion of celebrated street photographers. In the 50s and 60s, she worked mainly in black and white, with a Rolleiflex camera that captured the fine detail of those she photographed. From the 1980s, she used colour Ektachrome film. This untitled picture, taken in 1978, which dwells on a look that any professional childcarer would understand, is at the beginning of that transition, a shift in style of which only Maier was intimately aware.
A selection of Vivian Maier’s work will be on view at Photo London, Somerset House, London WC2, 16-19 May, photolondon.org
- Tim Adams