St. Peter’s Abbey in Gent, Belgium will present Vivian Maier: The Discovery of a Photographer exhibition from June 27 through August 17, 2014. The exhibition showcases 120 photographs, mostly black and white, in addition to 8mm movies from her extensive archives.
Vivian Maier was the modern-day Mary Poppins, but her personal pursuits were a mystery until after her death at the age of 83. Most of her life, she worked as a nanny, however, unbeknown to all, in her leisure time, Maier went onto the city streets equipped with her camera. For 40 years, the nanny-cum-photographer took thousands of street photographs, mostly in black and white, later in color. The results of her outings are varied, but the majority of the images are taken in the 50s and 60s of children, the black community in Chicago and New York, and vagrants.
It was not until after her death at the age of 83 that the realtor, John Maloof, discovered her prolific work. In 2007, Maloof happened to be searching for historic Chicago neighborhood photographs when he came across undeveloped negatives and films at an auction house on Chicago’s Northwest side. Once the realtor began to develop the films, he realized the talent he had found. The realtor promoted her work and brought it into the spotlight.
Though Vivien Maier was born in the Bronx, she spent most of her youth in France, bouncing between Europe and the United States. Around 1949, she ventured out with her first camera, a Kodak Brownie camera box.
In 1951, she returned to NYC and settled in as a nanny with a family in Southampton. As a nanny, she was said to have the “stereotypical European sensibilities” of a woman who was independent and liberated. She was a free spirit to be depended on to “feistily preach” her own views to whomever would listen.
In her free time, Maier combed the streets of NYC refining her artistic craft. A year later, she purchased a Rolleiflex camera and continued to document NYC until her move to Chicago’s North Shore upper-class suburbs.
Once settled in Chicago, Maier had a darkroom where she could process and develop her own rolls of film. After her employment ended, and she moved from family to family, her undeveloped work began to accumulate.
From black and white, Maier picked up Kodak Ektachrome film and a Leica camera. Her color work was far different from her earlier black and whites. Her images had a slight edge and became more abstract. It was less about portraiture, and more about found objects and graffiti. However, in the 80s, Maier encountered financial issues, which left her work undeveloped and accrued.
In the late 90s, early 2000, Maier had to put her passion on hold as she tried to stay afloat. It forced her to place her items in a storage locker, as she “bounced from homelessness to a small studio” with the help of the one of the families she had once cared for. Eventually, the storage locker crammed with her photography obsession faded away until the items were auctioned off in 2007.
The discovery of Vivian Maier’s work first came as a surprise, but since the find, she has been compared to photographers, Diane Arbus and Gary Winogard. Her passion for documenting extended to a series of documentary films and audio recordings.
Since Maier slowly stashed a lifetime’s worth of negatives in a storage locker, her archives are vast. The discovery was a treasure trove of approximately 150,000 negatives, 2,000 rolls of film and 3,000 prints. Her exhibited photographs have wowed the world. They are compassionate and strikingly beautiful. Maier’s captured images have recorded some of the most interesting marvels and peculiarities of Urban America in mid-19th century – from demolition of historic landmarks and the destitute to comical, raw and gritty.
Vivien Maier said that she had learned English from plays. Her “theater of life” was acted out in front of her eyes, and the epic moment, captured in black and white, and color. Wherever she traveled, whether it was South America or Florida, she journeyed alone, and her photographs show that she was drawn to the less fortunate in society.
The nanny-cum-photographer once said that she supposed “nothing is meant to last forever.” However, Maier poignantly recorded the world around her through recordings, films and prints. With her life now the subject of a new documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, she assembled one of the most captivating observations of American life. The free spirit, Vivien Maier has given proof that some things are meant to last forever.
By: Dawn Levesque