The Life and Work of Street Photographer Vivian Maier

A LIFE IN SHADOW: The North Shore families who hired Vivian Maier as a nanny came to know a kind but eccentric woman who guarded her private life and kept a huge stash of boxes. A chance discovery after her death by a man named John Maloof has spotlighted her secret talent as a photographer and led to a growing appreciation of her vast work.

Maier often included herself—or her shadow—in her photos.   Photo: Courtesy of the Maloof Collection

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When I first visit his two-flat, I’m blown away by the sheer amount of stuff Maloof has acquired. Upstairs is Vivian Central. By Maloof’s rough estimate, he now owns more than half a dozen of her cameras, more than a hundred 8 mm movies, 3,000 prints, 2,000 rolls of film, and 100,000 negatives. Steamer trunks and boxes line an attic wall. He pops open a trunk bursting with Maier’s clothes—felt hats, baggy coats in muted tones, black shoes so heavy they could double as dumbbells. Many of the boxes contain newspaper clippings encased in plastic frames or vinyl binders stuffed with everything from movie reviews to obituaries. One headline catches my eye: “Fellow Veterans Honor Victim of 1995 Heat Wave,” on a story about Rodney Holmquist, who had served in the navy and died alone. Twenty veterans rescued his body from a pauper’s grave and reburied him with military honors.

Although Maloof has thrown out numerous boxes full of newspapers, he’s holding on to the rest of Maier’s belongings to search for more clues to her story. In late 2009, he ran into an old high-school friend, Anthony Rydzon, who had majored in documentary filmmaking at Columbia College, and Rydzon suggested they make a film about Maier. They had the time: Rydzon had recently lost his job as a stagehand, and Maloof had switched from selling real estate to reselling products on eBay. Today their movie project is on hold, but there’s talk that a professional documentary team might be interested in telling Maier’s story. The two friends spend nearly every day in the attic scanning Maier’s photographs, prepping prints for various exhibitions, and sifting through boxes for new leads on people they might interview.

The immense volume of the photos makes for a daunting archiving effort. Maloof estimates that he’s scanned only one-tenth of the negatives in his collection—and he’s barely glanced at the remaining 90,000. When he finds a particularly strong photograph, he posts it on his blog.

With the excitement online and the exhibits around the world (the Cultural Center show opens January 7th), there is ample evidence of the popularity of Maier’s work, but how much of that stems from the unusual story of Maloof’s discovery and the curious nature of the woman behind it all? During our interview, Phil Donahue—who knew Maier only as a nanny, not an artist—asked, “Is there a preponderance of evidence out there that these [photographs] are really special?”

Colin Westerbeck, the former curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago and one of the country’s leading experts on street photography, thinks Maier is an interesting case. He inspected her work after Maloof e-mailed him. “She worked the streets in a savvy way,” he says. “But when you consider the level of street photography happening in Chicago in the fifties and sixties, she doesn’t stand out.” Westerbeck explains that Maier’s work lacks the level of irony and wit of some of her Chicago contemporaries, such as Harry Callahan or Yasuhiro Ishimoto, and unlike them, she herself is often a participant in the shot. The greatest artists, Westerbeck says, know how to create a distance from their subjects.

Yet Westerbeck admits that he understands the allure of Maier’s work. “She was a kind of mysterious figure,” he says. “What’s compelling about her pictures is the way that they capture the local character of Chicago in the past decades.”

In any case, John Maloof has made it his mission to spread the word on his remarkable discovery. “I owe Vivian an honest effort to get her recognized as one of the great photographers of her time,” he says. “I’m only spending time on her story because the world is demanding it from me. The more I learn about Vivian, the more fascinated I am about this woman. She was a singular person, extremely intelligent, and her talent was extraordinary. I get great satisfaction in sharing it with the world.”

But Maier was an intensely private person. What would she think of Maloof’s mission? Wouldn’t she hate it? Maloof believes she wouldn’t mind because the world has moved on, and he lets her speak for herself. After a long search, he plays a recording from an interview she conducted with an elderly woman: “I suppose nothing is meant to last forever,” Maier says in her accented English. “We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel—you get on, you go to the end, and someone else has the same opportunity to go to the end, and so on, and somebody else takes their place. There’s nothing new under the sun.”

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4 years ago
Posted by ysteb21

What a great synopsis of a very complex and privagte woman.

4 years ago
Posted by Daniel O.

Incredible story! The photographs are a treasure. I hope I can get a chance to see the collection on display.

4 years ago
Posted by jkatze

It's not surprising the Donohue children did not appreciate the opportunities presented them by Miss Maier. Their father comes off as either unbecomingly arrogant or a Philistine. 'Preponderance of evidence that the photos are special'? Anyone with keen eyes and appreciation of elan knows they are.

4 years ago
Posted by Bernard Gordillo

Maier's photographs are quite powerful and thought-provoking. I look forward to every new image posted on Maloof's website.

4 years ago
Posted by Dave Kilkenny

I'm so glad these have come to light and hope they will be treated with some respect, not sold off to the highest bidder. The woman had a natural raw talent, which she built on as a self-taught and obsessive picture-taker. Of course, not all of the shots are good and only a fool (such as have voiced some opinions) would expect them to be. Applying the 90% rule, I'd expect 10,000 of them to be worth looking at.

4 years ago
Posted by chicagoschool

I've often thought Colin Westerbeck as a hack curator and his comments to the author prove it once again. To discount an artists work because he/she appears in the work often is absurd and quite stupid. There are countless important artists who 'participate' in their work.

For further proof of his laziness, pick up Westerbeck's book on street photography and see all the great, vital contributors to the genre he left out, ignore or simply didn't know about. An unimaginative guy its quite clear.

4 years ago
Posted by Gordon Stettinius

As to the " The greatest artists, Westerbeck says, know how to create a distance from their subjects." comment, Friedlander and Winogrand come to mind when looking at some of her work. I can appreciate that words can be bent and nuanced and often left unsaid and so Westerbeck is entitled to his opinion, but I feel it is early yet to say one way or another as to where VM will land in the pantheon of street photographers or Chicago photographers or whatever niches she joins.

I have been taken on a similar mission to John's (preserving and editing and promoting the work of photographer Gita Lenz) and so have followed VM's story very closely. All things considered, John is doing what he can and doing it industriously. It is very early to be dealing in absolute opinions. The only misstep so far that I can see is the early ebay sale of negs. Lesson learned though, I hope. And the loss of a negative or ten or what have you is not all that different from when a photographer damages or misplaces their own work so it can be forgiven even if it is regrettable.

Being open to further curatorial assistance when it is offered will be another formative crossroads in the project. I like the idea of conventional darkroom prints from the negs or, even better perhaps, the vintage prints themselves along side contemporarily produced versions. Even the lab prints or machine prints would be great to see as the scans seem very cleaned up.

4 years ago
Posted by cmarie

What an extraordinary story. Judging from what I've seen of Vivian Maier's work online, she definitely had "the eye" -- a chemistry with the camera that gifted photographers seem to be born with. I am curious about her background. It appears that she lived in Europe during WWII and remained a loner after resettling in U.S. in the 1950s; her photos are informed by a peculiar "outsiderness".

“I never remotely thought that what she was doing would have some special artistic value.” Upon contemplating the remark of Phil Donahue's intellectually jaded son, one cannot help but imagine that 50 years from now, his father might be remembered only for his brief association with an artistic genius, one who "dragged" his spoiled progeny to monuments and made the wrong kind of peanut butter sandwiches.

Anyway, thank you, John Maloof, for your good work!

3 years ago
Posted by mainstreet

I just happened upon this story from an email lomography magazine. I just love her pictures. They are so mysterious, intelligent, expressive,and unpretentious. I am an amateur have been experimenting with black and white photography more and more because of its honesty. This might be a rather twisted suggestion but, Oprah Winfrey does have her own T.V. channel and its pretty good about focusing sometimes on the Arts. I like what she does with this more than her talk show - shes to seems to always looking out for the new from the past. Perhaps you should approach her about a mini documentary. Seriously.
I'd watch. We are luck you saw the importance/artistry of her style.o
Can I buy one of those cameras?

3 years ago
Posted by f_s

"Westerbeck explains that Maier’s work lacks the level of irony and wit of some of her Chicago contemporaries, such as Harry Callahan or Yasuhiro Ishimoto, and unlike them, she herself is often a participant in the shot. The greatest artists, Westerbeck says, know how to create a distance from their subjects."

This is not a fair statement. The body of work that we are seeing, was everything she shot. Everything! It is not her carefully-chosen portfolio. Moreso, what we are seeing is John Maloof's choice, and he believes that we want to know what Vivian Maier looked like.

3 years ago
Posted by Electrofolio

Here in Electrofolio we like her work so much that we contacted Maloof and Goldstein. We finally made a tribute on her honour with the Jeff Goldstein collection.

Enjoy it here:

3 years ago
Posted by Stephen Cohen Gallery

An exhibition of 45 of Vivian Maier photographs, from the Jeffrey Goldstein Collection of her work,
is currently on view in Los Angeles at the Stephen Cohen Gallery through November 12, 2011. A catalogue is available.

3 years ago
Posted by 44061730

i am a volunteer for Jeff Goldstein. we continue to add more galleries and information about Ms. Maier. more images are up at

on december 15th - another wonderful show.

info is here

3 years ago
Posted by Skyglider

I am fascinated. I first read of her today in Vanity Fair magazine, then googled her to come up on this piece. What intrigues me most is that she evidently had no idea about her talent: “She really wasn’t interested in being a nanny at all,” Nancy Gensburg says. “But she didn’t know how to do anything else.” That she died days before her work was discovered to be something special is ironic and especially poignant. Makes one wonder… what is this life all about?

2 years ago
Posted by Tracy H.

Stay away from Westerbeck and any other dangerous critics. The photographer & professor Jed Devine from Yale would be a much better source to consult. Vivian Maier has a very sophisticated eye for composition, light,and abstraction. She is more than just a street photographer as Atget, Walker Evans, and Bresson were. There are also many themes going on in her work & unfortunately she is not here to edit and group her portfolios. This is a fascinating story - Can't wait to see more of her work! Good luck.

2 years ago
Posted by Peter B.

“But when you consider the level of street photography....she doesn’t stand out.” ~ Colin Westerbeck

Are you serious? She had her own vision. There weren't photo books back in the 50's. She is clearly world-class - among the very best. Her self-portraits say it all - she was inserted herself into the landscape - HER landscape. She was the Ruler of her domain. She certainly doesn't need Mr.Westerbeck's approval (or anyone else's). She didn't care what anyone what thought. She loved the PURSUIT. She viewed all her work - at 1/60th of second - and that's all that mattered...

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