Vivian Maier is perhaps the most intriguing street photographer that ever lived. That we know of. Perhaps there are other secret street photographers out there yet to have their body of work uncovered, but for now we have Vivian Maier alone to admire as an extremely talented street photographer who practiced her art for no one but herself.
Ms. Maier (I daresay she would have prefer being called Ms. Maier) was a nanny. People who knew her well describe her as guarded and private. People who knew her from afar regarded her as strange. What no one knew of her while she was still alive is that from 1949 until the 1990’s, Ms. Maier took over 100,000 photographs of the streets and people of New York and Chicago, creating an immense body of work she simply stashed away in boxes. Some of her negatives she never even revealed. Ms. Maier documented bits and pieces of America that are now extremely valuable (although it could be argued that they always were), not simply because her composition and subjects were masterfully chosen, but because her photos carry historic value as well. Her work eventually came to light when her storage unit was auctioned off due to non-payment, exposing Ms. Maier as the artist she always was.
You can also see a brief documentary about her on the BBC’s program “Imagine – Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?”.
What can we say about Ms. Maier that hasn’t already been said? Probably nothing, so we’ll just say this: Her story makes us ask questions about street photography, about what it all means, even about who we are as photographers.
Would our work improve if we took street shots only of things, people and moments that we felt a connection with on an intimate, personal level? Would we find liberation and new inspiration if we decided to show our work to no one, ever?
The list of questions that Ms. Maier’s story evokes is unending, but that’s what we all love about it, isn’t it?
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