“I’m the mystery woman,” Vivian Maier once told the children in her care. For decades Maier – a nanny by profession and a keen amateur photographer – worked anonymously, roving the streets of New York City and Chicago during the second half of the 20th century, with first a Rolleiflex and then a 35-millimetre camera. Her subject was the crass poetry of urban America – its vanity and ambition, poverty and noise, big crowds and narrow-mindedness – which she captured with empathy and a light wit. Maier took over 150,000 pictures, but she kept them to herself. We know her work only because she fell behind on payments for five storage lockers she rented in a Chicago warehouse, which were crammed with negatives, boxes of slides and more than 1,000 rolls of unprocessed film. When these possessions were sold off at auction in 2007, John Maloof, a young real-estate agent, bought most of it for less than $400 and promptly began posting a selection of her photographs online. These images went viral and would ultimately make Maier famous. But the fame came too late for Maier to appreciate: she died in 2009, aged 83, penniless and alone.
Maier’s secretiveness and humble life story as the “nanny photographer” have only enhanced her appeal. She has become not just a photographer but an enigma, a riddle to solve, whose pictures double as clues. She is also now a big business; today, her prints sell for thousands of dollars. In less than a decade, she has spawned countless solo exhibitions, an Oscar-nominated documentary and a number of biographies that seem to spin conflicting narratives. Some historians have characterised her as a quirky savant who had a way with children and a wariness of adults, and who compulsively took snapshots as an outlet for a hoarding disorder. Others have defended her as a confident and sophisticated artist who spent a lifetime honing her craft, and whose reticence was born of necessity. After all, how many posh families want to hire a nanny with an alcoholic father, an unhinged mother and a drug-addicted brother?
A new book portrays Maier’s oeuvre in a different light – namely, in colour. Between the 1950s and 1980s, Maier made roughly 40,000 Ektachrome colour slides, which collectors were given permission to process and release after a legal settlement in 2016. The images in “Vivian Maier: The Colour Work”, a selection of which can be seen at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York, feel somewhat less dramatic than her work in black and white, but they are often more playful. Maier was plainly alive to the sensuous delights of an unexpected splash of canary yellow or scarlet red against the drab greys of a cityscape. “Maier was an early poet of color photography,” writes Joel Meyerowitz, a fellow photographer, in the foreword to the book. “You can see in her photographs that she was a quick study of human behavior, of the unfolding moment, the flash of a gesture, or the mood of a facial expression – brief events that turned the quotidian life of the street into a revelation for her.”
Location and date unknown
The wit of Maier’s work often emerges in the juxtapositions she observed. Here we see a palpably dour, fatigued man framed – even overwhelmed – by the irrepressibly festive balloons he is trying to sell. Although this huckster seems pathetic, in Maier’s hands he is not an object of scorn but of pity.
Maier’s humane treatment of mundane struggles may have stemmed from her own status as an outsider. Historians have uncovered her family’s legacy of shame: her mother was born illegitimate to a Catholic family in France; her father was a violent alcoholic; her parents divorced when she was six; and her brother was a drug addict who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. As a child, Maier spent a number of years in France with her mother, but was also raised by her grandmother and some foster parents. As an adult, she supported herself by working as a live-in servant – like her mother and grandmother before her – which guaranteed that she would always remain an outsider in someone else’s home. Judging by her photographs, her misfit status gave her compassion for other outcasts, hustlers and anyone trying to make a buck.
Miami, Florida, 1960
It is hard to imagine a photo that more poignantly captures the quiet desolation of being on the outside looking in. This elderly couple, with their stooped shoulders and sagging skin, appears to be gazing at the vital, young swimmers inside. Colour film heightens the contrast between their tanned hides and the cool blue of the pool. The heart breaks a little at the sight of the woman’s kitschy tan-line and the way her hand clutches a rumpled paper bag.
Maier often chronicled sad examples of vanity. Many of her photographs are of dramatic hair-pieces, unwieldy wigs and eye-catching floral hats. She was skilled at spotting accessories that hovered at the awkward intersection of custom, ambition and class, such as this woman’s leg bandage, designed to accommodate a penchant for eye-catching pumps. Maier is also known for regularly photographing older, working-class women, who may have reminded her of her grandmother and mother, who died destitute in 1975 and neglected to mention Maier in her will.
Maier’s photos regularly capture amusing contrasts between the false pep of advertising copy and the often-gloomy lives of the urbanites they are meant to attract. Here this discrepancy has racial undertones: Maier shows an African-American woman with a disappointed expression on her face next to a film poster depicting a light-hearted and conventionally beautiful white woman. Maier often noticed moments that illustrated the country’s nuanced and uncomfortable relationships with race and class. Allan Sekula, an American photographer and critic who died in 2013, once observed of Maier that she “had an open and inclusive and very fundamental idea of what constituted ‘America’ that was missed by a lot of photographers in the 1950s and ‘60s.”
Chicago, May 1958
Street photography is an art form that requires the photographer to be both invisible and confrontational. This image is arresting not only for its vivid colours – a greying lady gussied up in a cherry-red coat and hat; the canary-yellow lines of the streetscape – but also for the withering look the woman appears to be giving Maier. Most of Maier’s subjects are oblivious to her snooping. This one is unsettlingly wise to it. Maier was always on the lookout for good subjects. When she found one, she would rush in pursuit, often with her young charges in tow. At least one of these children later recalled with embarrassment how oblivious Maier could be to the discomfort of the people she photographed.
"Self-portrait", Chicago, August, 1976
Maier took many self-portraits, capturing her image in shadow or reflective surfaces. Self-portraits are occasionally products of loneliness, but they are also acts of defiance, as they offer a record of triumphant self-reliance. With these pictures, Maier asserted herself as an artist, the master behind the camera. She also seemed to enjoy the way these photographs ensured she was seen at all, not least because her life was otherwise free of reliable witnesses. Maier’s self-portraits may have offered her regular, reassuring proof that she was alive, out in the world, finding meaning and making art. Years after her death, they are vital still.
Vivian Maier: The Color Work Howard Greenberg Gallery until January 5th, 2019