Looking further into Vivian Maier’s expansive archive

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine: Ones to Watch, available to buy at thebjpshop.com.

A new exhibition showcases a selection of the 150,000 artefacts discovered after the former nanny’s death

An exhibition dedicated to Vivian Maier opens at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes on 11 June, following a showcase at Musée du Luxembourg in Paris over the winter. Behind her striking visuals, Maier (1926–2009) has a remarkable story. Between New York and Chicago, she led a ‘double-life’ as a caretaker while – unbeknown to those who thought they knew her – taking thousands of images of urban goings-on with her Rolleiflex. The resultant body of work, comprising more than 150,000 images and assorted paraphernalia, remained undiscovered during her lifetime. Consciously or not, she inventoried a whole era – its styles and its behavioural norms.

Born in New York to European parents, Maier moved to Chicago in 1956, where she worked as a nanny for bourgeois suburban families for over 40 years. She was reclusive and although she lived with her employers, they knew little about her personal life. Maier’s work only came to light when the contents of the storage locker in which she had stowed her possessions were auctioned off due to missed payments. A young man, John Maloof, bought its contents for under $400 and progressively put the images he had inadvertently discovered on Flickr, where they received an outsized response. The story was turned into a documentary, Finding Vivian Maier (2013), by Maloof himself.

Vivian Maier, New York, 1953 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY.

“There is the mystery of Vivian Maier the person, and there is the mystery of Vivian Maier the oeuvre,” says Anne Morin, who curated the show and has previously overseen exhibitions by Robert Doisneau and Jacques Henri Lartigue. That looming mystery has brought up debates about consent, and whether showcasing a corpus Maier never herself brought forth is ethical. Morin acknowledges: “Of course, we touch on questions of moral integrity. But we’re performing a duty of memoir above all else. When we show her work, we do her justice; we pay tribute to her. We complete the historical record, which wasn’t done in her lifetime.” Morin constricts herself to the “sphere of the visible” and distinguishes that “we are not invited into the sphere of her life – those mysteries belong to her alone. It’s like the mummy’s curse: there are things you just don’t touch.”

Maier’s story has ultimately had a global impact because “she doesn’t have a tangible identity. She speaks to you, she speaks to me…. everyone recognises themselves. There’s a liquid aspect to her,” Morin notes. Nonetheless, she clarifies that other people’s ability to project themselves onto her does not minimise her agency. Maier’s film clips act as a key example, showing us not just what she sees, but the manner in which she actively looks.

The MK Gallery exhibition features 146 black-and-white and colour photographs – mostly from the 1950s and 1960s – as well as Super 8 and 16mm films and audio recordings. Morin describes the exhibition as transmitting “the architecture of the archive, which is colossal”. She describes Maier as a chiffonier, a 19th-century rag-and-bone collector. As such, Morin’s curatorial role was “to sort through the maremágnum”. Morin was interested in the periphery of the archive as much as the photographic output. She discovered Maier-owned photography books by Arnold Newman, Thomas Struth, Ron Galella and Berenice Abbott, and there’s evidence that she saw the seminal exhibition The Family of Man at the MoMA in 1955. Morin spent a decade familiarising herself with the contents of Maier’s archive and wanted to provide a kind of “restitution” of Maier’s vision.

Vivian Maier, New York, 1954 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY.

Maier’s constant return to certain themes shows her obsession with metropolitan mélange and everyday moments. She slyly and keenly observed how minutiae can communicate about relationships. The body language of affection is conveyed through the cropping of bodies, filling the frame with minor gestures: the gentle brush of hands to reveal the thrill of touch, or black low-heeled pumps toe-to-toe with tiny white child sneakers, converting the sweet bond between different ages. She used a cinematographic language to extract affecting ephemeral details nestled within the urban panorama. And from prim, glamorous women in fur coats to threadbare, destitute men, Maier’s curiosity was democratic. She did not shy away from photographing those struggling in the margins – indeed, Maier lacked the reticence that often enforces social boundaries.

Her own silhouette was often part of the photographic act: self-portraits partially obfuscated by her camera, prescient of the mirror selfies that have come to dominate our feeds. The recurrence of her own outline, in shadow or distorted in unexpected surfaces, feels playful, experimental, but more than anything, self-affirming. “This is a standout moment, in particular, for women in the history of photography: dormant archives are surfacing into the historical narrative, and they’re irrevocable to it,” Morin notes. “Maier especially touches on contemporary crises in identity. The resonance of her work speaks to this grappling with selfhood and visibility that every generation faces; while always reframes anew, there is comfort in seeing its legacy.”

Vivian Maier: Anthology is on show at MK Gallery from 11 June to 25 September 2022.

Sarah Moroz

Sarah Moroz is a Franco-American journalist and translator based in Paris. Her words have been published in the International New York Times, the Guardian, Vogue, NYLON, and others.