The extraordinary discovery street photography of Vivian Maier

A new exhibition in Milton Keynes cements the humble genius of Vivian Maier, a nanny and photographer who sought her subjects on the streets of New York and Chicago


Within the pantheon of great American street photographers of the 20th century – Alfred Stieglitz, Bill Cunningham, William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, Joel Meyerowitz – none share a story quite like that of Viviane Mayer. For one, she was never known as a photographer in the small business she kept, not during her lifetime at least. Maier’s future day job – if not for the fact that she often combined it with a Rolleiflex camera around her neck – was nanny. For more than 40 years, she cared for children between New York and Chicago, privately amassing a prolific body of work that wasn’t discovered until 2007, two years before her death. Following the discovery of this treasure trove of negatives in a Chicago storage unit, Maier’s posthumous reputation as a true icon in his field has steadily grown, thanks to a host of international exhibitions and the award-nominated documentary. Oscars 2013, Finding Vivian Maier.

Now Maier’s work has now arrived in the UK with an exhibition at the MK Gallery, featuring over 140 extraordinary black and white and color photographs that reveal the extent of his modest genius and his insatiable thirst to document all aspects of city life. “It’s an important exhibition,” says curator Anne Morin. “It truly legitimizes Vivian Maier’s place in the history of photography and marks the transition from her photographs from stock footage to works of art.”

In the years since her death, Maier’s job as a nanny has been misinterpreted as a double life, presented as something of a dichotomy alongside her supreme technical ability with a camera. His fiercely private and independent character, meanwhile, was presented as a paradoxical oddity, which in turn challenged a fundamental conception of what drives an artist. How could someone so talented not want recognition or stay satisfied with a career in childcare?

This exhibition dispels the mystery to reveal something more nuanced: that Maier, as an obsessive collector of stories – visual, written or aural – prioritized the capture of a moment, not as a means for a end, but as an act of personal fulfillment in itself. As for her work as a nanny, the exhibition shows to what extent her daily commitment to children nourishes her photographic gaze. With an entire room devoted to the theme of childhood, Maier’s images of children demonstrate that, to her, they were more like collaborators than subjects, and her photographs reveal them with a tenderness and candor made possible. only by his own affinity with them.

“It’s no coincidence that Maier was a governess,” Morin said. “His proximity to the world of children probably allowed him to refine his vision of the world, and to have the same capacity as children to discover things. She had exceptional acuity and was able to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. She knew how to see what usually went unnoticed, those little inflections of reality that are always on the verge of slipping away.

As for Maier’s enigmatic legacy, the exhibition invites us to focus our attention on his superb feats of composition and timing rather than fixate on the unyielding mystery of his character. “The closer you get to Vivian Maier’s work, the more opaque she becomes as a person,” says Morin. “The work only reflects Vivian Maier as a character and it’s hard to establish her true personality. It’s also territory I’d rather not venture into. I like to think that the mystery of her character remains intact.

Vivian Maier: Anthology is at the MK Gallery, Milton Keynes until 25 September 2022.

Stewart C. Hartline