The ironic story of Vivian Maier

Self-Portrait (c) Vivian Maier, Undated (via


Only recently I got acquainted with the mysterious life of photographer Vivian Maier. So much has been written and discussed about her life and work in the 10 years since her work first brought to light by John Maloof, I guess that if you have yet to know the story, you can go for the following sites and learn all you want to know in ~2 hours:

Here’s the basic facts as I know them:

  • Vivian Maier was a nanny and a photographer hobbist in her spare time
  • She was a very private person, not sharing private information nor her photography. The kids she helped raise remember she demanded they stay clear of her belongings, among them her photographs.
  • Over her life time she had exposed between 100,000 to 150,000 frames, only a small part has been printed while most have been only developed as negatives (meaning, she saw them as inverted exposures) and around 30-40,000 undeveloped exposures.
  • She died in 2009 after her locker has been auctioned and sold in 2007 to 3 buyers, one of them is John Maloof.

From the above information, I see Vivian Maier as a documentarian and collector: of newspapers, letters and life moments she captured on film. That was her life and kept to them as much as she could until she could not keep them any longer. I guess we will never know if she knew or realized that all her stuff has gone somewhere in 2007 (trash? sold?).

She had a very good eye for everyday moments and she was able to approach her subjects (candidly and not so) quite close and capture various moments of life. She was documenting her life much like an everyday person will do with his/her cellphone (only back then it was a buck per frame). I can only guess that at those days nobody minded or even were partly curious to see a woman photographer with a two-lens camera. The fact she was looking down and not pointing her camera directly at eye level made for hip-level style photographs (much like many hip shooters in our modern days do) as well as made her able to go unnoticed. Interestingly she was a person that people kept their distance when she was around yet she was able to get a genuine portrait of her subjects that were clearly aware of the camera and her presence.

The most prominent thing we can learn from Vivian Maier life is her love for photography and documenting her life as they passed by. She would not hesitate at times to take the kids she was responsible for on an adventure trips to downtown Chicago, taking pictures of them and the big city bustling around them. And she had little interest (or money?) in printing her work. This is so strikingly in contrast to our era of “publish or vanish” whether it is social media or self-publishing photobooks and “zines”. She didn’t receive any feedback (accept her own’s) and nothing stopped her documentary whatever it was. She demonstrated that the answer for “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is a sounding YES. This is because photography for her is being in the moment, looking around and pressing the shutter when it feels right. It was so strong, and she had so little beside her documentary hobbies, that she kept on taking pictures for many years, day in day out. She was passionate and even obsessive and that was part of her genius and genuine photography.

The other part that makes this story so interesting is the fact that someone else publishes her work and her private life. This is the irony and catch 22 punch of this whole story. If she had came out of the grave and saw what Maloof has done, I can only imagine she would have tortured him really slowly, and really hard. Not because he made (more) money from her centuries documentaries than she ever made throughout her life as a nanny (!), but because he exposed her private life to the public to see, judge and scrutiny – more people than there were in Chicago back in the 50’s. The books, the interviews, the documentary movies. And he admits, with a hint of panic or alert in his eyes, that she would have not agreed with such a violation of her needs/request throughout her life and with her efforts to retain the covers over her life and photography.

And her photography really deserves to be published, cherished and celebrated. And here lies the catch. Maloof, whether by intention or by shear pull of public curiosity or by his own obsession (or the combination of all the above), exposed the life of a Vivian Maier, a french lone and poor woman documentarian and collector, one soul of billion, which sought privacy at all cost (even at the cost of loosing all her life’s photography work).

I can only wish her “Nuchi Al Mishkavech Beshalom” (RIP in Hebrew).

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