Street Photographer Vivian Maier's Captivating Work Lives On

Visit the late photographer's first U.S. retrospective in NYC through Sept. 29

Mainly a street photographer, Vivian Maier took thousands of photos in New York City and Chicago between the 1950s and 1990s, capturing impactful images of people going about their daily lives. But Maier, who lived a modest life as a live-in nanny, printed very few of her photos.

Her work might have gone undiscovered if not for John Maloof. In 2007, Maloof, then a real estate agent, bought a trunk of Maier’s prints and negatives at a storage house auction. Realizing he had discovered something special, Maloof tracked down more of Maier's oeuvre and acquired everything he could get his hands on.

Maloof never met Maier, who died in 2009 at the age of 83. But he made it his mission to get her work out into the world, posting her photographs online before they were shared through books and exhibits.

He also co-directed (with Charlie Siskel) a documentary about the photographer's life—2013's Finding Vivian Maier. The film (available on multiple streamers) includes interviews with those who knew the Bronx-born Maier. The daughter of a French mother and Austrian father, she spent much of her childhood in France.

According to relatives and those who hired her as a nanny—including talk show host Phil Donohue— Maier was a private, even reclusive, personality. She spoke with a slight French accent and often told conflicting stories about her background.

Maier was unhoused near the end of her life. Some of the children she nannied stepped up to pay for an apartment and later, nursing home care.

Today, Maier is hailed as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century by some critics—and wrongly discounted as an amateur by others. (It's obvious where I stand.)

You can judge for yourself after visiting "Vivian Maier: Unseen Work." The first major U.S. retrospective of her images, it runs at NYC's Fotografiska through Sept. 29, underwritten by Kering's Women in Motion initiative, which spotlights women's contributions to culture and the arts.

Curated by Anne Morin, director of DiChroma Photography, the exhibit debuted in Paris at the Musée du Luxembourg and boasts more than 200 prints—plus Super 8 films and audio recordings. Camera buffs can check out Maier's square-format Rolleiflex and Leica, both on display.

Maier often focused her lens on everyday people and the less fortunate, but the exhibit includes lovely some candid shots of Lena Horne, photographed by chance on the street in the 1950s.

The photographer also shot self-portraits on occasion, providing glimpses of her reflected in store windows and mirrors.

Christine Champagne
Muse contributor Christine Champagne is a writer based in NYC.

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