Vivian Maier: the Chicago nanny who was the best street photographer you’ve never heard of

Vivian Maier: the Chicago nanny who was the best street photographer you’ve never heard of

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For several days now, I’ve been fixated–there is no other word for it–by the images of the late photographer Vivian Maier, a French-born woman who worked for years as a nanny, while leading a secret double-life as a street photographer.

You’ve never heard of Maier? Don’t feel badly. Nobody really knew about Maier’s work as a photographer until after her death in 2009 and Chicagoan John Maloof stumbled upon her medium format negatives and rolls of undeveloped film–a whopping 100,000 images–at an estate sale and decided to share them.

Maloof has posted scores of the images in a very fine blog that he often updates. Maier’s crisp black-and-white photographs capture a solemn Chicago: doyennes seemingly lost in an increasingly modern city; workaday folk walking and shopping beneath the script of neon; old men in shabby suits, hanging out on downtown street corners. She photographs Chicago at the same period as did posthumously- discovered amateur photographer Chuck Cushman, but Maier’s is more sober and thought-provoking. It has a perspective and a social commentary vibe that reminds me of the work of cartoonists Chris Ware, and Ben Katchor–just 40 years before the fact (and on film.)

Visit Maloof’s Maier blog and see what’s there. As was the case with the Cushman collection, I was drawn to Maier’s photos that showed people and architecture together, such as the grand dame above, standing curbside on Michigan Avenue with what is now the Chicago Cultural Center across the street. With the IBM building peeking overhead and the cab to her right, I’d place the photo at about 1972, but the woman seems dressed as if she’s from a time earlier than that.

I like this photo of a couple and a toddler shopping downtown at State and Randolph:

Look at this one. The subject looks none-to-pleased—and why would she, with “Diary of a Mad Housewife” playing across the street? I’d place this one at 1970, only because that’s when the movie premiered:

At State and Washington. The building with the Karoll’s menswear shop in the background is the Reliance Building. Cafe Atwood restaurant occupies the bottom floor of the now-restored building:

An earlier shot by Maier, probably from the 1950s would be my guess. Look at the officer behind the woman, walking a prisoner into the County Building downtown:

This shot is almost cinematic, capturing a woman approaching a group of dark suited businessmen outside the Inland Steel Building on Monroe Street.

Maloof has garnered a lot of attention for Maier’s work over the past year, including international press coverage and an exhibition in Denmark. Here’s hoping more of her work is exhibited locally. And Maloof is not bad with a camera himself. He has a blog of his own street photography as well as a flickr page.