Vivian Dorothea Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) was an American amateur street photographer, who was born in New York City, but grew up 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 100,000 photographs, primarily of people and cityscapes in Chicago, 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 in the U.S., Britain, Germany, Denmark, Norway and Belgium, and have appeared in newspapers and magazines in the U.S., Britain, Germany, Italy, France, and other countries. A book of her photography entitled, Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, was published in 2011.
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.”
Describing her work, Maloof said “Elderly folk congregating in Chicago’s Old Polish Downtown, garishly dressed dowagers, as well as the persecution of African-Americans, were all fair game for Maier’s lens.”
Maier’s photographic legacy, in the form of some 100,000 negatives – much 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.
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 15,000 negatives, 1,000 prints, 30 homemade movies, and numerous slides. His collection is known as “Vivian Maier Prints Inc.” In 2009, Maloof started to post some of Maier’s photographs on a blog, and later he announced his intention to publish a book of Maier’s photographs. The book Vivian Maier: Street Photographer was published in November 2011, and a feature-length documentary film about Maier and Maloof’s discovery of her work, entitled Finding Vivian Maier, is scheduled for release in 2013.
Maier’s photographs, and the way they were discovered, received international attention in mainstream media.