The Best Street Photographer You Never Heard Of

Her name was Vivian Maier and she was born in 1926 and died in 2009. Her father was Austrian, her mother French. She was born in New York, grew up in France, and returned to the U.S. when she was 25. Most of her working life was spent as a nanny in Chicago, where apparently she spent much of her free time walking the streets and photographing square compositions with her Rolleiflex. Her life’s work, 100,000 negatives, was won at auction by a real estate agent, John Maloof, who paid $400 for the mysterious boxes. Below are a selection of her work, all of it scanned by Maloof who has only catalogued a small amount of the total archive and has near total control of her photographic legacy. It is fascinating to look at all of this work and not be swayed by comparisons with other street photography greats: Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Lisette Model, Harry Callahan, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand. When a life’s work remains hidden, it doesn’t get a chance to dialogue with the culture and it’s hard to ascertain such chicken and egg issues as was she an imitator or a trend setter. Had she seen Callahan’s formalist work featuring Chicago’s light and shadows? Had she seen Helen Levitt’s photographs of kids in NYC? Whatever further research may reveal, what is undoubtable is that she had a great eye and cool sense of formalist aesthetics, and without a doubt, we’ve never seen such a treasure trove of fantastic street work of any city outside of New York. Interestingly, like Garry Winogrand, she died leaving hundreds (perhaps thousands) of rolls of undeveloped film. It will be very interesting to see what unfolds in the coming years. She left behind almost exclusively negatives—very few vintage prints—so all editorial decisions will be made for her. The first large scale exhibition of her work opened yesterday at the Chicago Cultural Center and a documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier, is set to be released in 2012. To read more about Vivian Maier, go to Maloof’s VM blog here and view a fairly candid interview with him here. Also check out this in-depth Chicago Magazine piece, as well as here and this TV story on the whole discovery. And as always in such a big find, there’s a bit of controversy on who “discovered” her and who controls what, here. Meanwhile, enjoy the fantastic photographs.
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