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How a mysterious Chicago nanny became one of the most important street photographers

Throughout history, many of the world’s greatest artists never achieved tremendous fame until after their death. That’s the case of Vivian Maier, who’s now considered to be one of the most important American street photographers of the last century, alongside famous names like Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson. But she remained unknown for much of her life, and it was only a chance encounter with a box of negatives that put her in the spotlight.

Untitled, Self-Portrait (Maloof Collection)
Vivian Maier, “Untitled, Self-Portrait” (Maloof Collection) Image used with permission by copyright holder

Details of her life are murky, but she was born in New York City in the 1920s to European parents. Maier grew up in France before returning to the U.S., where she spent several decades working as a nanny in Chicago to wealthy families. During her days off Maier is thought to have taken more than 100,000 photographs of people and city scenes in Chicago, yet she kept the photos to herself – many of them never developed.

Skip ahead to 2007, a Chicago historian and collector, John Maloof, stumbles upon Maier’s work by accident after purchasing a box of tensof thousands of undeveloped negatives for $380 at an auction. As he developed them, Maloof realized they were more than just photos. He was looking at evocative art depicting a Chicago of the mid-20-century that nobody had never seen. Maloof worked to uncover who the photographer was, acquiring more and more of her work. But before he could locate her, Maier had already passed away in 2009, having slipped on ice and never recovering from her head injury.

While Maloof researched Maier’s work, more details emerged. She kept to herself, her employers said, and she would spend her free days taking photos on the streets of Chicago with a Rolleiflex camera. According to Maloof, the children Maier took care of knew she was constantly taking photos, yet she never showed her photos to anyone. Maier also traveled around the world, as indicated by some of her photos.

Other collectors began to acquire Maier’s photos, but Maloof owns much of her work. He released a book, Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, in 2011, and his documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, came out this year.

(Via WebburgImages via Maloof Collection)

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Les Shu
Former Digital Trends Contributor
I am formerly a senior editor at Digital Trends. I bring with me more than a decade of tech and lifestyle journalism…
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