Vivian Maier: Unknown Or Just Waiting To Be Found? Can You Be Successful Without Recognition?

“We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel. You get on. You go to the end. And someone else has the same opportunity to go to the end. And so on. And somebody else takes their place.” – Vivian Maier

She was described as BOLD, paradoxical, brilliant, mysterious, eccentric, unusual, closed, mean, adventurous, damaged, lonely, misunderstood, opinionated, reclusive, paranoid, a hoarder, and a pain in the neck.

Vivian Maier much like Van Gogh, was only immortalized for her artistic contributions after her death. Born in the Big Apple, to an unmarried French immigrant in 1926, she spent her childhood between the States and a small French village of 250 people. This was a village where people stayed put.

Vivian’s mother had a box camera, and was likely the first exposure to photography in her life. Vivian herself used her characteristic Rolleiflex camera. She gave out fake names, and people suspected her heavy French accent as being fake. She was almost six-feet tall, and walked with purpose in heavy boots clunking with heavy stride.

In an auction house in 2007,  a box loaded with negatives was bought for $380 by John Maloof. While looking for historical photos of Chicago for an upcoming book he found much more than he bargained for, he stumbled across a treasure trove. Vivian still being unknown, the selling point of this box was its age. A 2007 google search of Vivian Maier brought up no hits, no information, no recognition. John Maloof tossed out tonnes of negatives. Old negatives by an unknown photographer have no value, but John thought some were “cool” and created a photoblog to showcase these negatives online. The positive response online prompted John to piece together her work. That Flickr post’s reception is what lead to her becoming famous. He knew her name but not the person behind the camera. Upon viewing these photos, the first assumption was that she was a journalist or a professional photographer. Her occupation throughout her life was nanny/caregiver. Children and the relationship between child and parental figures were often explored in her work. The motivation, intense drive and passion for photography is seen in every image. She had an artistic eye and a very personal composition style.

She was guarded and private about her personal life, while often seen with her camera in tow, not many people saw her photographs during her life. She wasn’t interested in sharing her work. A loner without any family, love life, or children who was fully devoted to her photography.  An entire storage locker filled with undeveloped film was planned to be discarded after she died and stopped paying the monthly payment fees on it. 100,000 negatives, 700 rolls of color film, and 2,000 rolls of undeveloped colour film make up her immense body of work. This is more than many full-time professional photographers ever make, yet she managed to do this whilst raising other people’s children. A majority of her work was never even seen by herself, not opting to spend the money to develop her rolls.

A viewfinder was how she viewed the world for so much of her life. Her street photography transformed her into reporter, and a self-proclaimed spy. Hoarding stacks of newspapers showed her interest in the everyday events. She captured so many fleeting moments forever in amber; images all telling stories. The first showing of her work had one of the biggest turn outs, years after her death. She had shown interest in letters about being a full-time photographer but now she has solidified her place in history.

She did it for no one else, and her work ended up amazing. She wasn’t trying to be anyone and she had nothing to prove. Things that come from the heart have a glimmer that is priceless. Vivian saw the art in the streets, the sidewalks, and in the creases of people’s faces. Art was just something she did. In the world of almost seven billion people, this woman was uncovered and forever immortalized. Her work can be seen across the world.  Vivian once said, “The poor are too poor to die,” in her earlier life. She passed away in 2009. Some of the children she helped to raise buried her near wild strawberry bushes in a grove she used to take them to.

Author: Shannon King

Shannon King is an English and Art/Art-History major halfway through a bachelor’s degree at the University of Toronto (Missisauga). Holding both American and Canadian passports, she considers the general area of North-America as home after moving countless times. A lover of both the abstract and analytical, always searching for answers in both other’s and her own written work. Photography, pastels, graphite, digital media, and the written word are just some forms of media she enjoys (so far).