Masters of street photography – Vivian Dorothea Maier

Written and researched by Carlo Traina

Vivian Dorothea Maier

(New York 01.02.1926 – 21.04. 2009)

Along the road you can meet the whole of humanity, without recognizing or noticing it. Everything that escapes from the addicted and distracted everyday look, but not from the look and lens of the street-photographers, more often than not even more anonymous than their own subject.


It is quite curious that today we know Vivian Maier only thanks to an estate agent from Illinois , John Mallof that – an amateur photographer himself, looking for photographic material for the preparation of a book about the Chicago neighbourhoods – in 2007 bought a stock of old negatives (about 40.000), sold at an auction together with the furniture of an old lady who was into financial troubles. That old lady was Vivian Maier, that for her whole life had been shooting as a mere pastime over 100.000 photos (with about 15.000 negatives never developed) kept jealously hidden from the eyes of others. Her images – taken mainly in New York and Chicago – show the average Americans on the road and streets of shopping, with a sad look in their eyes, women wearing hats, the demolition of historical monuments in the name of development, some of the most beloved places in Chicago, the invisible lives of various groups of people, the indigents.

Precisely because of her reserve, and thanks to this desire to photograph exclusively for herself, the biography of Vivian is not as rich in details and episodes as that of other Masters of Photography.

Undated, New York

1950s, Chicago, IL

September 13, 1953, Empire State Building, New York, NY

May 10, 1953, New York, NY

Born on the first of February 1926 in New York, from France mother and Austrian father, she lived her first years in France, but she come back to the United States in the 50′ and she lived for some years in New York acting as a saleswoman in a candy store. Since the forties she moved to Chicago. At the end of the forties she began shooting with a modest Kodak Brownie Box 6×9, an amateurish camera with a single shutter speed , no focus control and no control over aperture.

A woman that did not like to talk, that wore male clothes and shoes, great hats and had always the camera hanging from her neck; that is how the salesmen of CHICAGO CENTRAL CAMERA, an historical shop, described her.

On 1952 Vivian finally bought a Rolleiflex 6×6 and her shooting style started to develop. Her talent is similar to the one of the most important figures of the American Street Photography, photographers like Lisette Model , Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand.
Her photographs betray an affinity towards the poor, probably due to the emotional relationship that Vivian feels towards those who were forced to struggle to get by. To survive in fact Vivian worked as a nanny at some families, especially for the three children of a rich family, who then saved her in old age, when – extremely poor – they would take care of her as a second mother, paying her the rent of an apartment, among other things.

At the end of the ’50 she decided to pass to color photography, using 35 mm films, Kodak Ektachrome and several models of Rolleiflex (3.5 T , 3.5 F, 2.8c , Automat) but also a Leica IIIc, a Ihagee Exacta , a Zeiss Contarex and several other reflex cameras.

1954, New York, NY

August 12, 1954, New York, NY

The use of colour made alive what was not clearly visible in her work before and her shots would become more abstract, as the passing of time. The people slowly crawled out of her photos and were substituted by objects , like newspapers and graffiti.

Vivian Maier died in 2008 , but thanks to the work of Maloof her photos are still alive and kicking on Flickr  and on the website vivianmaier.com , che Maloof did open to make known to fans and critics the life and the shots of the “nanny-photographer”, and, most important thing to answer to two important questions still open : “Who was Vivian Maier and what there is behind her incredible vision?”

East 108th Street. September 28, 1959, New York, NY

1955, New York, NY


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