Vivian Maier. Street Photographer.

A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
Piecing together Vivian Maier’s life can easily evoke Churchill’s famous quote about the vast land of Tsars and commissars that lay to the east. A person who fit the stereotypical European sensibilities of an independent liberated woman, accent and all, yet born in New York City. Someone who was intensely guarded and private, Vivian could be counted on to feistily preach her own very liberal worldview to anyone who cared to listen, or didn’t. Decidedly unmaterialistic, Vivian would come to amass a group of storage lockers stuffed to the brim with found items, art books, newspaper clippings, home films, as well as political tchotchkes and knick-knacks.

The story of this nanny who has now wowed the world with her photography, and who incidentally recorded some of the most interesting marvels and peculiarities of Urban America in the second half of the twentieth century is seemingly beyond belief.

An American of French and Austro-Hungarian extraction, Vivian bounced between Europe and the United States before coming back to New York City in 1951. Having picked up photography just two years earlier, she would comb the streets of the Big Apple refining her artistic craft. By 1956 Vivian left the East Coast for Chicago, where she’d spend most of the rest of her life working as a caregiver. In her leisure Vivian would shoot photos that she zealously hid from the eyes of others. Taking snapshots into the late 1990′s, Maier would leave behind a body of work comprising over 100,000 negatives. Additionally Vivian’s passion for documenting extended to a series of homemade documentary films and audio recordings. Interesting bits of Americana, the demolition of historic landmarks for new development, the unseen lives of ethnics and the destitute, as well as some of Chicago’s most cherished sites were all meticulously catalogued by Vivian Maier.

A free spirit but also a proud soul, Vivian became poor and was ultimately saved by three of the children she had nannied earlier in her life. Fondly remembering Maier as a second mother, they pooled together to pay for an apartment and took the best of care for her. Unbeknownst to them, one of Vivian’s storage lockers was auctioned off due to delinquent payments. In those storage lockers lay the massive hoard of negatives Maier secretly stashed throughout her lifetime.

Maier’s massive body of work would come to light when in 2007 her work was discovered at a local thrift auction house on Chicago’s Northwest Side. From there, it would eventually impact the world over and change the life of the man who championed her work and brought it to the public eye, John Maloof.

Currently, Vivian Maier’s body of work is being archived and cataloged for the enjoyment of others and for future generations. John Maloof is at the core of this project after reconstructing most of the archive, having been previously dispersed to the various buyers attending that auction. Now, with roughly 90% of her archive reconstructed, Vivian’s work is part of a renaissance in interest in the art of Street Photography.

The Story

For a number of years, I have frequented a flea market on Chicago's West Side. In the spring of 2010, stories about a recently discovered amateur photographer named Vivian Maier surfaced and filtered through the market crowd. It was here that I first learned about Vivian Maier and her remarkable photographs. I eventually heard a story from one of the original buyers that when Vivian's collection had come up at a local auction, it had been acquired and dispersed among a few individual bidders. Shortly thereafter an opportunity arose, and I acquired 57 photographs from one of the original buyers. Flea market rumors indicated that someone with a significantly larger portion of Vivian's work had disappeared from Chicago along with his part of the Vivian Maier collection. Mystery and intrigue soon followed.

Later spring 2010, I was notified that this mysterious buyer had reappeared. A meeting was arranged, and I acquired his portion of the Vivian Maier collection. The Jeffrey Goldstein collection (Vivian Maier Prints Inc.) has grown to include 15,000 negatives, 1,000 prints, 30 homemade movies, and numerous slides. They document Vivian’s European years prior to her early 1950s stay in New York continuing through her Chicago years from 1955 into the early 1970s. 

Distinctly solitary and driven by private motivations, Vivian Maier was a natural-born photographer who captured extraordinary images of her subjects and, in doing so, revealed the essence of Americana. Vivian was childless herself but worked for many years as a nanny (seemingly a guise affording her the basics: food, clothing, shelter and TIME in order for her to pursue photography), a profession that allowed her to document the complex beauty of domesticity. Her photographs demonstrate an intimate exploration of family life, as well as her seemingly allegorical views of “home”—a space sometimes idyllic and whole, and sometimes troubled—as in her photographs of homes destroyed by tornadoes or street riots.

The present collection bears witness to Vivian’s sophisticated and expansive approach to locations and subject matter. Both intimate and grand, her photographs include poignant self-portraits in an expressive array of street subjects, ranging from unknown people to the renowned likes of Salvador Dali and Richard Nixon. Vivian photographed the exhilaration of life's celebrations, found in parades and parties. In addition she captured moments of conflict, social inequality, and turmoil. Her curiosity and picture snapping extended far beyond her travels in Europe and the United States. A lone explorer, Vivian Maier photo-documented her travels through Africa, Asia, and South America creating a visual diary of her curious observations.

Looking through the richly varied subject matter of her work affords us an intimate view of Vivian Maier, the obscure, the self-assured, and the photographer extraordinaire.