The Life and Work of Vivian Maier, the Nanny-Turned-Photographer Whose Incredible Story Was Nominated for an Oscar


Vivian Maier was a Chicago nanny who left behind a vast, secret hoard of her pictures. Now she’s being hailed as one of the best street US street photographers of the 20th century.

Vivian Dorothea Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) was an eccentric street photographer. Maier worked for about forty years as a nanny, mostly in Chicago’s North Shore, pursuing photography during her spare time. She took more than 150,000 photographs during her career, primarily of the people and architecture of New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, although she also traveled and photographed worldwide.

During her lifetime, Maier’s photographs were unknown and unpublished, and in fact she never developed many of her negatives. A Chicago historian and collector, John Maloof, acquired some of Maier’s photos in 2007, while two other Chicago-based collectors, Ron Slattery and Randy Prow, also found some of Maier’s prints and negatives in her boxes and suitcases around the same time. Maier’s photographs were first published on the Internet in July 2008, by Slattery, but the work received little response. In October 2009, Maloof linked his blog to a selection of Maier’s photographs on Flickr, and the results went “viral”.

Many details of Maier’s life remain unknown. She was born in New York City, the daughter of a French mother, Maria Jaussaud, and an Austrian father, Charles Maier. In 1951, aged 25, Maier moved from France to New York, where she worked in a sweatshop. She moved to the Chicago in 1956, where she worked primarily as a nanny and carer for the next 40 years.  John Maloof, curator of some of Maier’s photographs, summarized the way the children she nannied would later describe her:

“She was a Socialist, a Feminist, a movie critic, and a tell-it-like-it-is type of person. She learned English by going to theaters, which she loved. … She was constantly taking pictures, which she didn’t show anyone.”

Now, almost six years after Maier’s passing, and half a century after some of her most beautiful images were taken, the nanny-turned-photographer is celebrated worldwide for her contributions to street photography and documentation of American life. To find out more about Maier, be sure to check out the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, or read more on her official website. (Scroll down to watch trailer)

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