Vivian Maier: A Shadow in the Streets

If you are a photography enthusiast, you should be familiar with the name of Vivian Maier or should have come across her photographs. Her life is an extraordinary success story, even though she lived a simple life. While we explore her life and works, we will travel to the streets of Chicago and the 1980s, and we would like to take you with us.


Vivian Dorothy Maier was born in New York, 1926. As far as we know, she also spent some of her childhood in France. Maier worked as a housemaid and nanny for lots of families.

She was proud of the fact that she was never married. Whenever someone calls her “Mrs. Maier,” she corrected them by saying, “Miss Maier.” She always kept people with a distance to herself. If someone saw her taking photos on the streets and asking who she was, she even used a fake last name called “Smith.” She was saying, “I’m Miss V. Smith.”

Vivian Maier with her photograph machine, September 10, 1955, New York

Who discovered Vivian Maier?

A young man named John Maloof discovered her when he required some old photos of Portage Park, Chicago, for his history book in 2007. Later, in an auction, he bought an old box full of photograph negatives for 380 dollars. While he examined them, he began to realize that the photos were good. That made him curious. So, he searched for Vivian Maier’s name on the Internet but couldn’t find anything.

After two years, in 2009, he uploaded the photos to some social media, and the pictures astonished the people. Then he progressed with his research and made contact with people who know Vivian. He started to do interviews, and we can understand Vivian better today thanks to John Maloof.

“Well, I suppose nothing is meant to last forever. We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel. You get on; you have to go to the end. And then somebody has the same opportunity to go to the end and so on.”
― Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier’s Photography

In her photos, we can observe that she took pictures of different levels of New York: streets, ports, crime scenes, etc. Her subject matters are workers, poor, neglected, poorly dressed women, beggars, or children collecting garbage food. She was also interested in taking photos of lovers, mothers, fathers, etc. Maier took shots of whatever the Chicago streets presented to her, and recorded the daily routine of streets with her Kodak Brownie machine.

When you look at her photos, you can observe that some are taken with a close-range like only half a meter away from people, maybe even less. For some people, being photographed by a stranger from this close can be unsettling. It is why we see faces projected as disturbed in her photographs.

Also, in some photos, she only took specific details and leftovers such as people’s shoes, lamp posts, flowers on the street. She tried to understand the nature of being left behind, having acute loneliness.

Even when she photographed herself, she appeared little in the photos. She was a complicated artist. For instance, she could print some of the pictures instead of buying photo films, but she chose not to. She preferred to keep her photos to herself and take pictures like a shadow in the street.

Flowers on the street, by Vivian Maier

While she was living, she may seem like a shadow for lots of people, but it is for sure that she is a role model for emerging photographers nowadays. She showed the world that living a simple, moneyless life can’t prevent an artist from performing magnificent works.



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