Images of Life

Vivian Maier was born in the United States to immigrant parents (French and Austrian). Vivian lived most of her young life between New York City and France. For most of her life, Vivian worked as a nanny in Chicago. She was a very private person with no close friends or connections with her family.

When Vivian took children on walking trips to the city, she would take along a camera and shoot photos of street scenes. She took more than 150,000 photographs of people and architecture. No one ever saw these during her lifetime. In fact, many of the negatives were never developed.

After selling the family farm she inherited from her mother, she took a trip around the world capturing what she saw with her camera. The photos and negatives were placed in boxes which she kept at the homes where she was a nanny. When she got too old to work, she rented storage space for her boxes. When she could no longer afford to make the payment for the storage space, her boxes were sold at an auction.

Three photograph collectors bought her photos and negatives. The photographs were placed on the internet but got little attention. It wasn’t until they were placed on Flicker that people started paying attention. The photos started being shown in art galleries and were published in art books.

There is considerable debate whether these works of a very private woman should be shown in public. Is the public entitled to the artistry of a very private person? Why wouldn’t Vivian show her work when she was alive? Does the fact that she never made the photos public tell us about her intentions or is this just a reflection of her personal privacy?

Why might we consider Vivian a hidden hero? Certainly, she never had any recognition during her lifetime. But what heroic acts did she display? The best of her photos give us a view of people who lived on the margins of society. They give us the opportunity to imagine the lives of people who would otherwise be forgotten.

Vivian’s photos also have a sustaining quality. The collector of most of her photos has taken the money earned from print sales and created a scholarship for students at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago. As befitting Vivian’s life, the scholarship has no application or requirements other than that it goes to female students lacking financial resources. The names of the recipients are not released. Perhaps the scholarship will produce the next generation of hidden heroes.

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“A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.” – Diane Arbus (Photographer)

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