Vivian Dorothea Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) was an American street photographer, who was born in New York City and spent much of her childhood in France. After returning to the United States, she worked for approximately forty years as a nanny in Chicago, Illinois. During those years, she took more than 150,000 photographs, primarily of people and architecture of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, although she traveled and photographed worldwide.
Her photographs remained unknown and mostly undeveloped until they were discovered by a local Chicago historian and collector, John Maloof, in 2007. Following Maier's death, her work began to receive critical acclaim. Her photographs have been exhibited throughout North America, Western Europe and Asia and featured in countless articles throughout the world. Her life and work have been the subject of several books and documentary films.
Maier's images predominantly depict street scenes in Chicago and New York, in the 1950s and 1960s. An article in The Independent said "the well-to-do shoppers of Chicago stroll and gossip in all their department-store finery before Maier, but the most arresting subjects are those people on the margins of successful, rich America in the 1950s and 1960s: the kids, the black maids, the bums flaked out on shop stoops." John Maloof has said of her work that "Elderly folk congregating in Chicago's Old Polish Downtown, garishly dressed dowagers, and the urban African-American experience were all fair game for Maier’s lens."
Discovery and recognition
Maier's photographic legacy – in the form of some 100,000 negatives, many still undeveloped – was discovered by a 26-year-old real estate agent, John Maloof, also president of the Jefferson Park Historical Society in Chicago. While working on a book about the Chicago neighborhood of Portage Park, Maloof bought 30,000 prints and negatives from an auction house that had acquired the photographs from a storage locker that had been sold off when Maier was no longer able to pay her fees. After buying the first collection of Maier photographs in 2007, Maloof acquired more from another buyer at the same auction. Maloof, who runs the Maloof Collection, owns 100,000 to 150,000 negatives, more than 3,000 vintage prints, hundreds of rolls of film, home movies, audio tape interviews, original cameras of Maier, documents, and other items, representing roughly 90 percent of Maier's work. Maloof soon discovered Maier's name, but was unable to find out more about her until just after her death, when he found an obituary notice in the Chicago Tribune.
Her work was first published on the Internet in July 2008 by Ron Slattery, who also had bought some of her work at the auction, with little fanfare. In 2009, Maloof started to post some of Maier's photographs on a blog. Maloof's promotion of Maier's photography eventually resulted in interest in her work. In the spring of 2010, Chicago art collector Jeffrey Goldstein acquired a portion of the Maier collection from one of the original buyers. Since Goldstein's original purchase, his collection has grown to include 17,500 negatives, 2,000 prints, 30 homemade movies, and numerous slides.
Since her posthumous discovery, Maier's photographs, and the way they were discovered, have received international attention in mainstream media, and her work has featured in many gallery exhibitions and a number of books.
Many details of Maier's life are unknown. She was born in New York City, the daughter of Maria Jaussaud and Charles Maier, French and Austrian respectively. She moved between the U.S. and France several times during her childhood, living with her mother in the Alpine village of Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur near to her mother's relations. Her father seems to have temporarily left the family for unknown reasons by 1930. In the census that year, the head of the household was listed as award-winning portrait photographer Jeanne Bertrand, who knew the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art. It should be noted that Maria worked as a practical nurse for a private family, giving insight into Vivian's career of working for private families.
In 1935, Vivian and her mother, Maria, were living in Saint-Julien-en-Champsaur and prior to 1940 returned to New York. Her father and brother Charles stayed in New York. The family of Charles, Maria, Vivian and Charles were living in New York in 1940, where her father worked as a steam engineer.
In 1951, aged 25, Maier moved from France to New York, NY, where she worked in a sweatshop. She moved to the Chicago area's North Shore in 1956 and there, for approximately 40 years, worked on and off as a nanny, staying with one family for 14 years. The families that employed her described her as very private and reported that she spent her days off walking the streets of Chicago and taking photographs, most often with a Rolleiflex camera.
John Maloof, curator of some of Maier's photographs, summarizes the way the children she nannied would later describe her:
She was a Socialist, a Feminist, a movie critic, and a tell-it-like-it-is type of person. She learned English by going to theaters, which she loved. ... She was constantly taking pictures, which she didn't show anyone.
In 1959 and 1960, Maier took photographs in Los Angeles, Manila, Bangkok, Beijing, Egypt, Italy, and the American Southwest. The trip was probably financed by the sale of a family farm in Saint-Julien-en-Champsaur. For a brief period in the 1970s, Maier worked as a nanny for Phil Donahue's children. She kept her belongings at her employers, at one she had 200 boxes of materials. Most were photographs or negatives, but Maier also collected newspapers, and sometimes recorded audiotapes of conversations she had with people she photographed.
Toward the end of her life, Maier may have been homeless for some time. She lived on Social Security and may have had another source of income. The children she had cared for in the early 1950s bought her an apartment in the Rogers Park area of Chicago and paid her bills. In 2008, she slipped on ice and hit her head. She did not fully recover and died in 2009 at the age of 83.
^Newsletter January 2009 - Number IX, Jefferson Park Historical Society. p. 2. "...we celebrated the publishing of a new book, 'Portage Park', authored by JPHS executive board members Dan Pogorzelski and John Maloof."