Vivian Maier The Enigma of a genius

As the world changes and becomes more technologically advanced it becomes more difficult to hide from scrutiny. Almost everyone has a digital footprint in some form or other unless they are scrupulous about staying off the grid. But good artists it seems have a knack for only becoming famous after they have died.

Vivian Maier was no exception. Discovered completely accidentally by John Maloof, someone whose knowledge of the arts and photography was limited at the time, Vivian’s story came to life. And what a story. Typical of the artistically gifted, she was reclusive and this contributed to her late discovery. Despite intensive research there are still gaping holes in the tapestry of her life, that perhaps only time and coincidence will fill.

Street Photographer

Rated as one of the best street photographers of the 20th century, Maier went about her trade in obscurity and certainly invisibly. One might even dare to consider that she masqueraded as a nanny to hide her true passion – photography. She lived out almost her entire working life as a nanny and the skills and personality required to be a nanny have certainly come out in her work. A sharp and observant eye are clearly exhibited in her work as she was undeniably capable of choosing the exact moment to take a picture.


She joins a long list of artists and creatives that only became famous posthumously. Like many of those she seemed to have a complex personality and this draws us to what is known of her background. It would appear that she was possibly emotionally neglected due to the conflict between her parents who it seems were unhappy from the time she was born. Passed around to grandparents and other carers, there is little evidence of childhood bonding. With one exception.

Jeanne Bertrand was a portrait photographer that has been present in Maier’s life from a young age and was clearly the person that inspired her love for photography. Census records show Bertrand had been around since Maier was as young as three or four. Apart from the children she cared for and Jeanne Bertrand, little is known about other significant people in her life.

Evidence reveals that in fact Maier preferred her own company, keeping her distance from other people. Interviews with people that had known her in passing such as her previous employers and neighbours indicate that she struggled with the follies of humanity. Her only blood relative, her older brother Karl, didn’t feature in her life and it was discovered that he himself had a life that drove him down the path of mental illness.

Working class and the poor

Her work highlights an affinity with those further down the ladder in life. Mostly photographing working class people on the street, whether they were labourers, children or families, she managed to capture the life of the underdog accurately. As someone that seemed to struggle to get by she understood and documented people with the same struggles in a remarkable way.

With no formal training her gifts are astonishing. She has a sense of light and space that were developed as her obsession with photography grew. It is quite possible that she went to her grave not having seen thousands of the pictures that she took in print. This was because she simply could no longer afford to either develop them herself or have them developed. It was almost as though she intentionally avoided discovery too, as many of the receipts from developers and pawn shops show how she used several aliases.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that had she allowed others into her dark internal world, then she would not have died alone and penniless. The first negatives discovered by aloof were found shortly before her death. But by the time her genius had been truly identified she had passed away in a nursing home.

A legend after her death

In 2009, at the age of 83 Maier departed this world oblivious to the storm that her photographic genius would stir up.

Vivian Maier became not only a legend after her death, but she left to the American people a legacy that few others could match. The photographic record over several decades of regular people, doing regular activities, has provided historians of the future with a lot more to go on. Her fly on the wall approach to life can also be seen in her photographs as she captured life from the viewpoint of someone that was invisible to her subject. Time and time again.

Unsurprisingly she was considered eccentric by those that came into contact with her. Described as an intellectual with strong opinions and incredibly private, she never showed her photos to anyone. While this may suggest poor self esteem, we will never really know why and how this photographic master was kept from the public eye for so long.

To see photographs by Vivian Maier please visit


Why not visit the mynuphoto homepage:


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