Vivian Maier: Lost art of an Urban Photographer

Vivian Maier

June 25, 2013

She’s been called ‘the greatest photographer you’ve never heard of’… the mysterious Vivian Maier, a nanny based in Chicago who took about 150,000 photographs in her lifetime and stashed them away, not showing them to anyone. She left thousands not even developed, and most as negatives from which she never made prints.

It was sheer accident that her life’s work was discovered.

Two years before she died in 2009, Vivian Maier stopped paying the rent on five storage lockers in Chicago. Without her knowledge the contents were sold. At locker sales, you have to stand at the door and buy without touching. So auctioneer Roger Gunderson saw only a jumble of boxes and suitcases:

“A Paris sticker on one trunk caught my eye. I thought maybe there’s going to be some perfume or jewellery.”
Roger Gunderson

Gunderson bought the lot for $250 – “a truck and a half load of stuff”, he says: papers, magazines and thousands upon thousands of photographs. People who then bought them at auction posted a few online. Before long, Vivian Maier went viral. Now her prints sell for thousands of dollars a piece.


But what prints are we talking about?

In her lifetime Vivian Maier had perhaps 5,000 prints made. Some she made in the bathrooms of her lodgings – moving from family to family, she never had a home of her own. Some were made at drugstores where she had negatives developed. She put some of these prints into albums. Ron Slattery, who bought boxes of her work at auction, has a beautiful album with small prints of the extraordinary world tour she went on, all alone, in 1959.

At least one print she framed and hung on her wall (left). It must have been one that she particularly liked. And the fascinating thing is that this print – like most prints she made – is cropped.


Vivian Maier had several cameras, most with rectangular negatives. But her favourite camera, the Rolleiflex, has a large, square negative.

She started to use the Rolleiflex in 1952, and in time this camera became her trademark. Looking down into its viewfinder, Vivian would see her picture in colour, and square.

Nowadays, the black and white photos she took on the Rolleiflex are being printed large and square. They look stylish, framed on minimalist apartment walls. But in her cluttered apartment, she would never have seen her pictures looking like that.

Richard Cahan co-edited Out of the Shadows, a book of Vivian’s photographs. He was unaware that she ever cropped her photos.

“Photographers are either square or horizontal people”, he said, “and Vivian was a square person.”

Vivian Maier with a Rolleiflex camera

Vivian Maier with a Rolleiflex camera

His co-editor Michael Williams added:

“When you see her other work where she did use a 35mmm rectangle, it’s just not quite there. For her it all came together with the square; it seems to just sing for her.”

Pamela Bannos, distinguished senior lecturer at Northwestern University in Illinois, says Vivian herself frequently cropped.

She would have seen the image square in the viewfinder, and her composition within the square is unfailingly beautiful. Yet when she printed, she would crop the sides of the square to highlight the human drama in the centre of the frame.

We can’t show the negative from which Vivian made this print as it is in the collection of John Maloof, who did not want us to use his pictures. (The print is owned by Jeff Goldstein, who did give us access to his collection, as did Ron Slattery.)

Pamela Bannos calls this “Vivian Maier’s fractured archive”, which makes research into her work so very difficult.

But you will find a square print of this image on John Maloof’s website. The comparison is amazing – Vivian trimmed the sides to focus on the confrontation. In other words she cut off the passing human life that viewers now so admire and adore – that sense that W.H. Auden writes about in Musée des Beaux Arts:

About suffering they were never wrong

The old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position: how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

Icarus falls from the sky but people just pass on by, busy with their own preoccupations, not even noticing.

In another photograph highlighted by Pamela Bannos, Vivian captures a down-and-out being taken away by police, while a well-dressed woman passes by.We love that juxtaposition of worlds. But Vivian didn’t print that shot – it has been chosen for her.

In another frame that she DID choose to print, she was close up on the old man at the police van, working more like a photojournalist than a poet of the human condition. In fact she cropped it to get even closer to the action. Quite likely a photojournalist is what she aspired to be.

Of course it would be presumptuous of owners and editors now to crop her photos, even if they wanted to, which they don’t. Richard Cahan said, “We’ve never cropped any of her pictures. Two reasons: one, it’s a little unseemly to decide 50 years later what should be cropped, and two, they don’t need it. I’ve looked at hundreds of her negatives and can’t think of one I would really like to crop.”

People are perfectly justified – as in our film for BBC One’s imagine – in presenting Vivian’s images square. Maybe, just maybe, ‘we’ know her strengths better than she knew them herself. But it’s a great example of what has happened in the strange case of this unknowable woman, who quite deliberately and conscientiously kept both her life and her work a secret, away from the public gaze.

As Michael Williams put it:

“Everything that we can learn about her is going to come from the pictures. We really are just left with the images.”

Which is true, and wonderful they are, even if they are being presented not quite as she would have done herself…


  • 1926. February, born in Manhattan, New York to French mother Marie Jaussaud and Austrian father Charles Maier
  • 1930. According to census, was living in the Bronx with her mother and a photographer, Jeanne Bertrand, but without her father or elder brother
  • 1932 – 1938. Lives in the French Alps with her mother
  • 1938. Returns with her mother to live in New York
  • 1950. Visits France again; takes first known pictures
  • 1951. Returns to live in New York; earns living looking after children and works hard at her photography
  • 1955. Los Angeles, working as a nanny
  • 1956. Starts job in Chicago as a nanny, where she is based for the rest of her life
  • 1959. Goes on world tour, including a visit to France to sort out an inheritance
  • 2007. In arrears on her storage lockers: contents sold and then auctioned
  • 2009. Vivian Maier dies in April

This article originally appeared on the BBC website.