Photographers You Should Know: Vivian Maier
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Photographers You Should Know: Vivian Maier

No two people see the world exactly the same. Because of our singular vantage points, unique past experiences, genetics, morals, and chemistry, even the exact same experience is never perceived exactly the same way. By studying the works of other photographers, we are given the beautiful experience of sharing a moment in time, peering through the eyes of another artist, if only for an instant. Remaining inquisitive about those who clicked their shutters before us and alongside us can propel us forward; it can help us process our own experiences in a new way, challenge us to see the world a little differently, and it can greatly inform our own pursuit of art. That is what our, 'Photographers You Should Know' series is all about. In this series, we introduce you to photographers in history that we believe gave something truly unique, unexpected, and valuable back to the world through their photography. We hope you'll remain curious, feel inspired, learn something new, and follow along.

An unremarkable box of negatives won at a Chicago Auction was the first clue to the modern mystery that is Vivian Maier. When historian and street photographer, John Maloof, purchased a box of photographs for a research project, he had no idea the treasure that he held. As he studied the collection of photographs, he found himself magnetized toward the person behind the images, and was determined to learn more about the photographer, only to find out that (by all accounts) she was virtually a ghost.

Drawn by her striking black and white street photography that depicted over four decades of Chicago characters, Maloof dove deeper into his investigation. Stacks of images that showed human decay, tortured expressions, and a country divided laid eerily among tender and hopeful captures of young love, childhood joy, and connection. Her images were often taken secretly from below, capturing authentic emotions and giving the subjects a towering, larger-than-life presence, frame by frame.

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“Vivian Maier just did the work. She didn't seek validation for her photography from others - she was compelled to tell the story of the street.”
- Kirk Mastin
Photographers You Should Know: Vivian Maier

As Maloof explored her legacy, the images in the auction box were just the beginning. Over the course of a few years, Maloof spoke to the people in the pictures, he visited the places she lived and traveled to, and he uncovered an intriguing storage unit she held that was filled with over 100,000 undeveloped photos, curious nick knacks, newspapers, video and tape recordings, and collectables. Maloof spoke to anyone and everyone that knew Maier, determined to understand who she was, and how she lived her whole life somehow building the portfolio of a prolific photographer, and never sharing it.

When describing Vivian Maier, the children she looked after years ago use words like tall, unusual, closed, and strict. Her style is described as that of “women factory workers in the soviet union in the 50s.” She rode a motorized bicycle and was never seen without her treasured Rolleiflex hanging around her neck. Her former employers remember her having an odd accent (she claimed it was French, but a linguist insisted the accent was fake), few friends, and tight lips that only spoke when necessary, (usually only to the children). Newspapers with dismal headlines like, “murder!” “suicide! “abuse!” that exposed the folly of humankind and were obsessively collected by Maier and hoarded in tall, dense stacks behind her ever-locked bedroom door.

Much is still unclear about Vivian Maier; what kept her from sharing her work, what caused her to alienate herself from her family, what childhood traumas clearly haunted her into adulthood, and why she chose to lie about where she was born. All we have are snapshots and glimpses into her life, a fragmented history, pieced together by the people that knew her. What is clear is that Maier had intelligence for photography that far surpassed her training, she was highly complex, emotionally damaged, private, convicted, and inquisitive. She lived a lonely and independent life, distanced herself from her family, and maintained emotional distance from those who knew her best. She was socially conscious, self reflective, and eccentric. Among her vast photographic collection were thousands of undeveloped film rolls, hundreds of self-portraits with creative use of mirrors, reflections, and shadows, and street captures that exposed the edges of the human experience and showed a deeply rooted sense of curiosity and a compulsion for self-preservation.

Vivian Maier’s photography is a moving and raw depiction of post-war Chicago and lonely travels overseas. After years of outreach, her work is finally being celebrated for its rare brilliance; although most of the art world has sadly still not recognized her. Her work can be seen in galleries in prominent displays in places like New York, L.A., London, Germany, and Denmark for a new generation of photographers.

If you’re interested in learning more about Vivian Maier, we encourage you to watch this Netflix documentary, Finding Vivian Maier.

A Word From Mastin Labs:

The most interesting work is the work of interesting people. How does your personality, past, and life experience inform your work?

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