Vivian Maier – The Unknown Master Street Photographer

Self-portrait of Vivian Maier

Recently word of the phenomenal discovery of street photographer Vivian Maier has been hitting the web like wildfire.  A fellow Chicago street photographer by the name of John Maloof found Vivian’s negatives in 2007 while at a furniture and antique auction house. After scanning and looking through her collection of 30-40,000 negatives, he soon realized that she had a tremendous gift for street photography. Not only that, but he realized that he also had a huge responsibility to share her work with the rest of the world.

After Maloof first posted his discovery on the Hardcore Street Photography group on Flickr, her story has been picked up and covered by many bloggers as well as the mainstream media.

Long story short, she was a French-born photographer who lived in Chicago from 1926-2009, and took thousands of images throughout her lifetime. According to research from Maloof, she came to the US as a child and worked in a sweatshop for some time in New York. After that, she worked as a nanny for a Chicago family for many years. According to the children she nannied, they described 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 wore a men’s jacket, men’s shoes and a large hat most of the time. She was constantly taking pictures, which she didn’t show anyone. [Citation]

Nobody quite knows why she never shared her photographs with the world. Although there is no evidence that she was formally trained in photography, her belongings show that she owned many photography books which she most likely studied composition, technique, and how to capture the decisive moment. As for you gear-junkies, she shot with a Rolleiflex.

I find this story fascinating for several reasons. First of all, I believe that it reflects the fact that there are still thousands upon thousands of unknown or undiscovered artists who weren’t fortunate enough to get the mainstream acclaim that Vivian Maier has. In-fact, I believe all of us have a bit of Vivian Maier inside of us. However the fact which differentiates Vivian Maier from the rest of us is that for some reason or another, is that she purposefully withheld from sharing her work– while most photographers out there strive to share their work with others.

Why didn't Vivian Share Her Work? Another Self-Portrait of Her

Regardless, Vivian Maier is destined to go down in history as a master street photographer, along with the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau. Her work is truly oustanding, and shows a quite personal story of Chicago and New York life through her eyes.

Not only that, but a documentary and a book is currently in the works. Although the project is fully-funded through Kickstarter, you can still donate today!

A mainstream media outlet, Chicago Tonight, also covered a fantastic story on her as well.

Below are some of my favorite images from Vivian, taken from John Maloof’s blog.

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  • akejandro

    Wow. Nice I’m from chicago the one with the hoaRse gave me chills, I feel like I was there

  • Melissa Evanson

    WHOA! This is amazing Eric! Her work is genius but most of all it’s simply beautiful that she did what she did for the love and joy of it. She did not want fame or money. She simply loved taking photos. A great reminder for all of us.


  • Thomas Leuthard – 85mm

    She shows us that you can take photos just for your own and do not have to share it. Maybe it’s a different view, but obviously it was enough for her. At that time there were not so many possibilities to share as we have today.

    Maybe one day the World will also discover my “unexposed exposures”…

  • Vinicius Carneiro

    Very nice story! And incredible photographer.

    You have to discover another unknow talent.

  • Sonia Nansid

    This is so touching that it made me cry.
    I can’t say much more than this.

  • Dave Dolkart

    In the video clip on, it shows some bins with undeveloped 35mm cannisters with recent brands of Kodak film. I’m guessing that this is from the 90’s and after. I’d be curious to see the shots and find out what kind of camera she used.

  • TJ McDowell

    Love the shot of the violinist! My wife and I talk about talent vs fame occasionally. We’ve come to the conclusion that those 2 do not always go hand in hand. If you look at the movie stars and bands that are big now, it’s more than talent that got them to where they are. There could be a hundred other actors or bands like the ones we see, but the ones that make it big have more than just the talent. Don’t you think?

  • ted

    hey eric … did you see this documentary?

    • Piotr

      Yes, her work is truly amazing. I can’t wait for the documentary to be finished! Thanks ted for sharing that youtube video with us!

  • Paul Stewart

    Im totally blown away by her work and what a story, does anyone know where I can see more of her work, planned books etc?

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  • Anonymous

    An exhibition of 45 of Vivian Maier photographs, from the Jeffrey Goldstein Collection of her work, is currently on view in Los Angeles at the Stephen Cohen Gallery through November 12, 2011. A catalogue is available.

  • crif oter

    She was a true artist that wanted herself hid more than she wanted her art put forward. Darn shame she didnt bask in glory.

  • Paul @ big world picture

    I also did a short blog on her , I added an image I found on here and placed a link to your site with it . .

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