What do Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Robert Frank, William Klein, and a nanny from the Bronx called Vivian have in common? Answer: They are all unequivocal greats of street photography. The latter’s well-documented discovery as a luminary with a lens is perhaps as exhilarating as it is outlandish. Over the course of five decades, this ferociously private woman amassed a body of work that was, in the end, composed of more than 100,000 negatives.
Although born in New York in 1926, Vivian Maier spent much of her childhood in France. It was this unique marriage of the grit of the US with a European distance that gave Maier that healthy mix of insight and perspective on her photographic subjects. Wandering the streets of New York, she would capture scenes of cantankerous old men, peculiar family trips, the plight of the local homeless, and all manner of urban ephemera, in vivid medium-format monochrome.
Unlike most street photographers at the time using 35mm, Maier’s medium-format – with her favourite camera, the Rolleiflex – meant that her photographs had an edge when it came to detail. Fusing sharp perception and high-res precision led the working-class woman to become a key figure in American photography. Yet this discovery almost never happened, in fact it was a complete accident, since Maier kept her photography a strict secret: not even close friends and family knew the extent of it.
In 2007, Maier stopped paying the rent on five storage lockers she had in Chicago, after relocating there. As a consequence, a local thrift auction house on Chicago’s Northwest Side auctioned off the majority of her work – without her knowledge – which included hundreds of boxes of undeveloped film and negatives, Super 8 home movie recordings, audio tapes and suitcases packed with memorabilia, for merely a few hundreds dollars.
The winner of the lot was Chicago real estate broker John Maloof, who was not allowed to touch the objects before the auction, he could only look at these boxes from a distance. When eventually able to take a look up close, Maloof began a long process of sorting through these images, and in October 2009, linked his blog to a selection of Maier's photographs on Flickr. The result went viral, and these days a single print can sell for thousands of pounds.
An exhibition at London’s Beetles+Huxley Gallery is now displaying a selection of these candid photographs from this modern Mary Poppins. They are from her earlier period in 1950s New York City, when she would drag her charges around on long walks of up to 10 miles. As the newly-released documentary about her life, Finding Vivian Maier, reveals, at the time these children had little idea Maier’s photography would hold such force, but few are surprised, because she was tenacious, strong-willed, and driven from within.