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Vivian Maier, New York, September 3, 1954 Copyrigh
Vivian Maier, New York, September 3 (1954)

Inside Vivian Maier’s secret archive of street photography

A new exhibition brings to light the photographer’s extraordinary work, discovered by accident just before she died

In 2007, one of the most extraordinary photographic discoveries of the 20th century was made in an anonymous storage locker in Chicago. This archive of images would not only offer a window into the world of this hitherto unknown artist, but also provide glimpses of poignant moments in the lives of thousands of anonymous individuals immortalised by this unseen and unacknowledged woman moving among them.

This lone photographer was Vivian Maier. By that time, Maier was elderly and impoverished, having spent her life in obscurity working as a nanny for families in Chicago and New York. After the rent for her storage facility had fallen into arrears, everything inside was summarily seized and sold off at auction. The young real estate agent who happened to buy a box of her belongings began to sift through the contents and discovered the wondrous beauty of the never-before-seen images he found inside. In this improbable and precarious way, her life’s work came to light just two years before her death. 

A new exhibition, Vivian Maier: Anthology (at Milton Keynes’ MK Gallery) presents Maier’s work in the UK for the first time. The show includes over 140 photographs – predominantly black and white but also her later experiments in colour as well as never-before-displayed Super 8 films. 

Maier was continually on the periphery. As a nanny, she was part of the household but forever on the outside, once described as a “real-life Mary Poppins” – an apt observation for a magical but transitory presence who enters a home without being a member of the family.

Her life as a nanny also aligned with her habitual photography. She was known to take the children in her care on all manner of interesting and unusual day trips around the city as part of not only her pursuit of pictures but her innate and childlike curiosity. The exhibition dedicates a whole section to her portraits of children. Her affinity for kids and their vision of the world around them is evident throughout her work and the subjects she’s recurringly drawn to –  details of the world around us that, as adults, we‘re often desensitised to while children are still receptive to. And her love of children was reciprocated by the kids she cared for during her 40-year-long career. She evidently became significant to the three Gensburg boys she looked after from 1956 until 1967. In her retirement, they bought an apartment for her and, later, paid for the care home she lived out her final years.

Rolleiflex in hand, Maier engaged with the world from her uniquely liminal perspective. Taking pictures of the street life of New York and Chicago, her images form an intricate narrative about American life with an ensemble cast of thousands. In her double life as a street photographer, she amassed more than 150,000 images alongside Super 8 and 16mm films, prints, audio tapes, and reems of undeveloped film… pristine uptown children in t-bar sandals holding their mothers’ gloved hands, urban cowboys, lovers, pavement detritus, lipsticked women wrapped in fur stoles, juvenile delinquents, the homeless, old ladies colluding as they cross the street. “Vivian’s images offer a unique view of genius in action,” Wisdom continues. “Each shot seems to have been watermarked with an unmistakable charm.” 

“Vivian Maier’s story is an extraordinary one,” writes the gallery’s director, Anthony Spira. “The nanny who lived secretly as a world-class photographer whose remarkable work remained virtually unknown in her lifetime is now hailed as one of the greatest recorders of American life in the 20th century, cementing her place in the history of photography alongside Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus, and Robert Frank.”

Each photograph is totally absorbing, a vignette of humankind captured with her empathetic eye “Vivian had a gift for entering the privacy of the people she photographed,” writes photographer Linda Wisdom in the exhibition’s accompanying text. “Her brilliance in reading human behaviour is undeniable. Like a movie trailer, her photographs leave us with more questions than answers.”

Take a look through the gallery above for a glimpse of some of the images on display. 

Vivian Maier: Anthology is showing at MK Gallery until September 25 2022.