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Wednesday 23 July 2014

Excellent Women: Vivian Maier

Have you heard of Vivian Maier? Until recently, hardly anyone had. If it hadn't been for a chance discovery, she may have been remembered only as a nanny by those who knew her personally. But during her career looking after children in Chicago and New York, she also pursued her personal hobby of street photography. She took over 100,000 photographs and hid them in storage lockers. Discovered all these years later, they've now earned her recognition as one of the 20th century's finest photographers.

She also loved taking photographs of herself, and has since been nicknamed the original 'selfie queen'.

An American of French and Austro-Hungarian origin, Vivian travelled between Europe and the United States before coming back to New York City in 1951, having picked up photography just two years earlier. By 1956 Vivian left the East Coast for Chicago, where she’d spend most of the rest of her life working as a caregiver. She carried on taking pictures right up until the 1990s.

Later in life, Vivian became quite poor and was ultimately saved by three of the children she had nannied earlier in her life. Fondly remembering Maier as a second mother, they pooled together to pay for an apartment for her. Unbeknownst to them, one of Vivian’s storage lockers was auctioned off due to delinquent payments - and in those storage lockers lay the massive hoard of negatives Maier secretly stashed throughout her lifetime.

Maier’s massive body of work would come to light when in 2007 her work was discovered at a local thrift auction house on Chicago’s Northwest Side. From there, it would eventually impact the world over and change the life of the man who championed her work and brought it to the public eye, John Maloof.

Our culture loves to idolise people - we're always tempted to put anyone with talent on a pedestal, especially if they come from a 'lost' age. Which is why the film Finding Vivian Maier is so unique - it attempts to discover who the real woman behind these incredible images was - even if the truth is not always what we'd expect.

Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, Maier’s strange and riveting life and art are revealed through never before seen photographs, films, and interviews with dozens who thought they knew her. But as Maloof meets people who knew Vivian, new questions arise about her life and work. The families who employed her as a nanny have mixed memories, and hint at her dark side. 

Finding Vivian Maier was released at UK cinemas last week- you can find tickets here.

Maier's life provides not only a fabulous insight into America in the second half of the 20th century, but also into the life of a woman who chose not to marry, have children, or seemingly even make any close friends. Much of her mystery is set to remain an enigma, but this film and her photographs provide a tantalising glimpse into a lost world.

Here's another of Vivian's haunting self-portraits. You can buy books on both her work as a street photographer and her pictures of herself on the Vivian Maier website.

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