Aggressively elusive, Vivian Maier described herself as “a kind of spy,” who peered into thousands of lives through her street photography of Chicago and New York. A nanny with a lilting foreign accent, she took the children she cared for around the city, unafraid of dicier neighbourhoods, and always with her camera around her neck. Maier amassed a mammoth collection of over 150,000 photos over her lifetime, as well as Super 8 and 16mm films. It was only in 2007 that her work was discovered in a storage locker, revealing Maier as an ardent pack rat, and a wildly talented photographer.
Her self-taught, poignant style caught snippets of lives and could have brought her to a photographer’s pantheon along with the likes of Robert Frank and Helen Levitt. And yet, she fiercely protected her anonymity, often using fake names and locking her bedroom door. Since her discovery, Maier’s name has exploded across the art scene, leading to a string of international exhibitions and an award-winning documentary, Finding Vivian Maier (2013), dedicated to her.
Maier captured America with a Whitman-esque quality; she shot it all, from well-clad upper class housewives, to the gritty realities of the poor. And unlike her contemporaries Diane Arbus and Lee Frielander, she did not shy away from representing racial diversity in her work. She captured an America in flux, a true account of the living and breathing nation. Both her reclusivity and the abundance of her work calls to mind American poet icon Emily Dickinson. During their lifetimes, Dickinson and Maier worked in the shadows, and their respective collections only took off posthumously.
There is an honest dedication found in their art practice that requires absolutely no need for validation from the public, or indeed, from anybody. Now that she has been discovered, it is precisely Maier’s aloofness that propels our urge to understand who this ‘mystery woman’ was. As seen in the exhibition, she teases her viewers with shadowy self-portraits, often partially eclipsed by light or distant mirrors, as we try to place her among the streets she so compulsively photographed.
Curated by Anne Morin, the exhibition brings to the UK the life and work of “the nanny who lived secretly as a world-class photographer.” Anthony Spira, Director of MK Gallery, describes Maier as “one of the greatest recorders of American life in the 20th century.” The exhibition features Maier’s photographs, film and audio, allowing us – just for a moment – to see the world through the eccentric woman’s eyes.