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The mysterious New York nanny who helped shape 20th-century street photography

By Helen Stoilas, CNN

(CNN) — For much of her life, Vivian Maier was something of a mystery. Her photographic talent went largely unrecognized because she kept her work a secret from most of the people who knew her, including the New York and Chicago families she worked for as a live-in nanny and caregiver. Maier only printed a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of images of bustling city life she snapped with her Rolleiflex and Leica cameras over some five decades, and showed them to almost no one, instead amassing boxes and boxes of negatives and unprocessed film.

Her fame came about posthumously, and only because the contents of her Chicago storge lockers were sold off at auction in 2007, after she had stopped paying the rent.

“Vivian Maier the mystery, the discovery, and the work — those three parts together are difficult to separate,” said Anne Morin, curator of the touring exhibition “Vivian Maier: Unseen Work,” which opened 31 May at Fotografiska New York, the American outpost of the Swedish contemporary photography museum.

The show, which runs through 29 September, does not attempt to unravel the puzzle of Maier’s life, however, instead focusing on the work itself, with more than 200 photographs on display, including about 50 vintage prints made by Maier. Morin places her work on the same level as that of renowned street photographers like Robert Frank and Diane Arbus, and worthy of a place in the history of photography. “Nobody doubts that,” Morin told CNN. “The work is strong and Maier had a marvelous eye. And in 10 years, we could do another completely different show — she has more than enough material to bring to the table.”

The exhibition is also a homecoming of sorts for Maier, who was born in New York to a family of French and German immigrants. She started capturing street scenes in the city as a young woman in the 1950s, first borrowing her mother’s Kodak Brownie box camera and then buying her own professional-grade Rollieflex, which she taught herself to use. Her confidence and skill in finding the right moment to snap the shutter is evident even in these early works, in which Maier zeroed in on the unique characters and situations that make up city life: Men snoring open-mouthed on park benches; a balloon from the Central Park Zoo floating to hide a doting father’s face as his baby reaches towards him.

But while Maier was known to use commercial studios in New York to have her film processed, she never seems to have made a serious effort to exhibit or sell her work. Maier’s return to New York as a popular icon is “a big thing not only for women, but also for all the artists who are working and are never recognized and never have the opportunity to be seen, to be shared, to exist,” Morin said. “It is never late to repair history.”

New York is “in many ways, the heart of photography history in America,” said Sophie Wright, the museum’s director. “So it’s amazing now to be in a position to be bringing Vivian back to that world. She’s a rediscovered, important voice of 20th-century photography.” Wright added that Maier’s photographs were taken with “so much thought and care and lack of self-consciousness — there’s no audience in mind. In a way, it’s pure, artistic expression for her.”

Maier’s name and work first captured the public imagination in 2009, the same year she died in Chicago, after the collector and amateur historian John Maloof shared scans of her work on the photo-sharing website Flickr. He was seeking advice on what to do with the thousands of negatives, prints and undeveloped rolls of film he had acquired over the past two years, after stumbling across Maier’s work at the auctions of her storage lockers.

Photographers and critics immediately remarked on Maier’s well balanced compositions, and her incisive and often humorous view of the people and places she came across, not just in New York, but also Chicago, where she moved in 1956 and spent most of her adult life, as well as the far flung locations she visited on vacations, from California to Europe and Asia. In 2011, Maloof published a book, “Vivian Maier: Street Photographer,” and with the filmmaker Charlie Siskel co-directed the 2013 documentary “Finding Vivian Maier,” which was nominated for an Academy Award.

A number of other gallery shows and biographies have also debuted in the years since— as well as a legal tussle over Maier’s estate, which is now overseen by Chicago’s Cook County Probate Court, and with which Maloof has signed an agreement to display and sell her work. (While Maier did not have any children of her own to inherit her estate, 10 potential heirs in Europe have been found among her extended family, and the court is looking into whether her brother Carl, who died in a psychiatric hospital in 1977, might have had any children.) The public’s appetite for Maier hasn’t diminished, however. When the current exhibition was on display at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris in 2021, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 213,000 people attended over its four-month run. The opening preview in New York on 30 May had over 600 visitors.

Despite her immense popularity, some museums have been slow to accept her work, even those that have major photography collections. Wright attributes this caution over Maier’s work to the fact that she did not make many prints herself. “There’s a reticence to be seen to be driving a narrative for the work that’s not the artist’s,” she explained, as well as a nervousness around the politics of her situation as a woman who was vulnerable in her later years. (At the end of her life, as her hoarding led to her losing caretaking jobs, Maier was believed to have been facing homelessness, until two of her former charges, Lane and Matthew Gensburg, paid for an apartment for her to live in, and later a nursing home.)

Maloof and the photography dealer Howard Greenberg, who represents his extensive collection, acknowledge the concerns around posthumous printing of Maier’s work, and during a talk at the exhibition opening, said that led to their decision to only create uncropped, direct reproductions from her negatives. In the show, there are many instances where these later prints are displayed next to the ones Maier made herself, showing how she chose to focus on certain elements in a scene.

Maier’s presence can also be felt in the exhibition through audio recordings she made  interviewing the children she cared for to encourage their critical thinking, which were also found in her storage lockers. They are played throughout the galleries. But the most persistent reminders of the artist behind these works are the numerous self-portraits she took, often as reflections in mirrored and glass surfaces, or simply as her shadow cast on the ground or a wall.

“The beating heart of the work is the self-representation,” Morin said, and it is these works she sees resonating the most with today’s audiences. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, my God, Vivian was the godmother of the selfie.’ But it’s different,” the curator continued. Maier’s self-portraits are a stubborn insistence in declaring her independence and identity, at a time when women, and especially domestic workers like her, were ignored and marginalized. “She wanted to record that,” Morin said, imagining Maier as saying: “I’m here at this moment. No one will erase my face. I exist and I have the proof.”

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