Little miss big shot: Fifties America exposed – by a French nanny

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

In 2007, a Chicago estate agent stumbled across an astonishing visual archive of mid-century America. So began one man's mission to rediscover Vivian Maier: nanny, eccentric and 'photographer extraordinaire'

The timing, composition and realisation grab you. But it's the anonymous drama of the subjects that keeps you looking: who are the two men talking in earnest on the pier? What is running through the mind of the young black man caught in the mirror on a street corner? Yet in the case of the photos presented here, that mystery extends to the photographer herself. We know she was called Vivian Maier, that she took at least 30,000 shots in Chicago and New York in the 1950s and 1960s. For these few facts, we can thank a young Chicago estate agent called John Maloof, whose chance discovery of the Maier archive has brought publishing offers, invitations to exhibit Maier's work all over the world, and the hope, from some, that a new star of mid-century American photography may have been unearthed.

A couple of years ago, Maloof wasn't even that interested in photography. With real-estate business slow due to the credit crunch, he began to investigate a box of negatives he'd bought for a few hundred dollars at an auction as a possible source of archive photography for a neighbourhood history book. Maloof scanned a few of the negatives, liked what he saw, and bought himself a beginner's SLR camera. "Throughout that time, I'd compare my work to Vivian's and think, 'Wow, this isn't good for me.' She was teaching me photography. I bought some books by street photographers such as Harry Callahan, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander. I thought, she's special – doesn't anybody know?"

Nobody did, it seemed. Maloof had gleaned Maier's name but little else from the intact but uncatalogued archive. He Googled her name without luck, and went so far as to track down another box of her work that a "found photography" enthusiast had bought at the auction. By which point he had 20,000 negatives and about a thousand rolls of film with 12-14 images on each – but no more clues as to the young, reserved-looking woman occasionally seen peering into shop windows or mirrors for a self-portrait, Rolleiflex camera around her neck.

A call to the auction house gave Maloof hope: Maier was alive, he was told, but believed to be too ill to receive visitors. Come May this year, Maloof had set up a blog displaying what he thought to be the best of the images so far (he still updates www.vivianmaier.com most days). He Googled again, only to discover a Chicago Tribune obituary dated a few days earlier: "Vivian Maier, proud native of France and Chicago resident for the last 50 years died peacefully on Monday. Second mother to John, Lane and Matthew. A free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all who knew her... Movie critic and photographer extraordinaire." She had died at the age of 83.

The newspaper directed Maloof to an address in a Chicago suburb, but he was able to turn up nothing. Meanwhile, Maloof joined Hardcore Street Photography, a group on Flickr, the photo-sharing website, wondering if his enthusiasm for Maier's work would be shared by others. "That week it exploded, and my inbox really filled up," says Maloof. "I've been asked to display these photos in Australia, Canada, UK, France and Mexico City."

So far, Maloof has put up a few hundred images on his blog, and he reckons, by his inexpert eye, that about one in 10 of Maier's images is worth posting –there are at least 20,000 images that he hasn't even looked at yet. No wonder he admits to feeling overwhelmed by the project of exploring Maier's huge archive. '

From what has emerged so far, it's easy to see what has excited Maloof and others worldwide. The well-to-do shoppers of Chicago stroll and gossip in all their department- store finery before Maier, but the most arresting subjects are those people on the margins of successful, rich America in the 1950s and 1960s: the kids, the black maids, the bums flaked out on shop stoops. There are more formal, almost abstract experiments with light and line, too. "She has an amazing appreciation of light. You can see it developing through her work," says Maloof.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Maloof got lucky. He came across an address on a label in the archive. He discovered that two people with the Christian names Matthew and Lane were registered there. One phone call later, and he learnt that Vivian Maier had been a nanny to John, Matthew and Lane for a decade from the early 1950s in a wealthy suburb of Chicago. And at a lunch with two of her charges, now in their fifties, he learnt much more.

A French Catholic, Maier had apparently arrived in New York as a young girl in the 1930s, where she had earned her keep in sweatshops and learnt English at the theatre. Eventually, she found herself in Chicago nannying three boys. "She had a peculiar personality," Maloof was told. "They told ' me she would bring home a dead snake to show them, or convince the millkman to drive them all to school in his delivery truck. They loved her." She had no family that anyone knew of, never, so it's said, taking a single personal call at the house she worked in for a decade. "She wore big hats and coats, and men's shoes, and thought of herself as a film critic." Her camera was around her neck constantly. As the children grew up, Maier moved on to nanny other families. But by the 1990s, she was homeless, and fortunate that the three boys she had originally looked after were able to return the favour, buying her an apartment and paying her bills until she died.

Why did this intensely private person pursue her rich, revealing photography? Certainly not for public show believes Maloof, who says there only a few, small prints in the archive. Who was Vivian Maier? Perhaps more biographical tidbits will emerge over the next few years – but there is surely only one place where we might find the answer: in the dark room.

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'