Recently, one of my students brought the work of American photographer Vivian Maier (1926-2009) to my attention. As I looked through her black and white prints of ordinary life around Chicago, her skill seemed on par with photographs by the greats like Robert Frank and Walker Evans and Dorthea Lange; yet, I had never heard her name.
The only thing more remarkable than her documentary imagery is her story. Essentially NO ONE saw these photographs when she was alive. For much of her life, Maier earned her keep as an introverted nanny in Chicago's suberbs. Families who employed her remarked about her no-nonsense ways and pack rat tendencies. They also added that they never saw her without a camera around her neck.
How then do we even know of her remarkable photographic eye? After Ms. Maier died, following an accident in 2009, her collections of over 100,000 negatives were found in a storage locker along with a trunk of old shoes, hats and clothes. With no heirs to claim her property, the items were put up to auction.
John Maloof, a scholar who was researching the history of Chicago's Northwest side, purchased the Maier collection, unaware of the visual treasures he would find inside.
As he waded through the bins of cameras, prints and rolls of film, he was not only studying the work of an unknown yet brilliant street photographer, he was also piecing together the life of a woman who lived, worked and died in relative solitude. The poignancy of her story is revealed only through these spellbinding photographs.
At present, Maloof is developing the many rolls of film that were never developed by Maier herself. He is collecting and organizing the myriad photographs with hopes of producing a documentary, exhibition and book detailing the life and astounding work of this unassuming nanny from Illinois.
To see more about Maier's story, be certain to watch Chicago Tonight's clip on her photography.