A new exhibition in Milton Keynes cements the modest genius of Vivian Maier, a nanny and photographer who sought out her subjects on the streets of New York and Chicago
Within the pantheon of great 20th-century American street photographers – Alfred Stieglitz, Bill Cunningham, William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, Joel Meyerowitz – none share a story quite like that of Vivian Maier. For one, she was never known as a photographer to the little company she kept, not in her lifetime at least. Maier’s would-be day job – were it not for the fact she often combined it with a Rolleiflex camera around her neck – was a nanny. For over 40 years she looked after children between New York and Chicago, privately amassing a prolific body of work that was only uncovered as recently as 2007, two years before her death. Following the discovery of this trove of negatives in a Chicago storage unit, Maier’s posthumous reputation as a true icon in her field has steadily grown, thanks to a host of international shows and the 2013 Oscar-nominated documentary, Finding Vivian Maier.
Now, Maier’s work has now arrived in the UK with an exhibition at MK Gallery, featuring over 140 extraordinary black-and-white and colour photographs that reveal the extent of her modest genius and insatiable hunger to document all aspects of urban life. “This is an important exhibition,” says curator Anne Morin. “It really legitimises Vivian Maier’s place in the history of photography and marks the passage of her photographs from archival images to works of art.”
In the years following her death, Maier’s work as a nanny has been misconstrued as a double-life, presented as a kind of dichotomy alongside her supreme technical ability with a camera. Her fiercely private and independent character, meanwhile, has been cast as a paradoxical oddity, which in turn has challenged a fundamental conception about what motivates an artist. How could someone so talented not want to seek recognition or remain content with a career in childcare?
This exhibition dispels the mystery to reveal something more nuanced: that Maier, as an obsessive collector of stories – visual, written or aural – prioritised the capturing of a moment, not as a means to an end, but as an act of personal fulfilment in itself. As for her work as a nanny, the exhibition demonstrates how closely her daily engagement with children informed her photographic eye. With an entire room dedicated to the theme of childhood, Maier’s images of children demonstrate that, to her, they more closely resembled collaborators than subjects, and her photographs reveal them with a tenderness and candour made possible only by her own affinity with them.
“It is no coincidence that Maier was a governess,” says Morin. “Her proximity to the world of children has probably allowed her to refine her view of the world, and to have the same ability as children to discover things. She had exceptional acuity and was able to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. She knew how to see what would usually go unnoticed, those little inflections of reality that are always on the verge of slipping away.”
As for Maier’s enigmatic legacy, the exhibition prompts us to instead focus our attention on her superb feats in composition and timing rather than become fixated on the unyielding mystery of her character. “The closer one gets to the work of Vivian Maier, the more opaque she becomes as a person,” says Morin. “The work only reflects Vivian Maier as a character and it is difficult to establish her true personality. It is also a territory I prefer not to venture into. I like to think that the mystery of her character remains intact.”
Vivian Maier: Anthology is on at MK Gallery, Milton Keynes until 25 September 2022.