Vivian Maier and the Voyeurism of Street Photography

I first discovered the story of Vivian Maier when I happened to scroll past a collection of her photos on Tumblr. I was in my final year of high school, and while I really should have been studying, I found myself sucked into the mysterious world of Vivian Maier.

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As close to Vivian Maier as I’ve ever gotten. The image is slightly underexposed, but is actually a sneaky self portrait.

I found myself with a newfound adoration for street photography while watching the documentary film ‘Finding Vivian Maier’ about her life. She was a nobody, a nanny, that had taken up photography as a hobby in 1949. She walked the streets of Chicago and New York, taking photos as she went along. She happened to recorded some of the most telling and peculiar images of Urban America during the second half of the twentieth century.

Vivian was a voyeur and a hoarder. The subjects of her photos varied. She chose to capture the lives of the every man on the streets of New York, and later Chicago. All was captured through Vivian’s lens. She had an eye for the unseen lives of the destitute, those society discarded.She was a street photographer, before the art of street photography had truly established itself. 

The most interesting part about Vivian’s story is that fact that her images are were so remarkable, but that the massive body of work she had shot and hoarded during her lifetime – close to around 100 000 negatives – was only discovered in 2007. The mystery began to unfurl as a man named John Maloof embarked on a quest to discover more about the woman behind the lens.

As much as I related to many aspects of Vivian’s work, her voyeurism, her ability to capture moments whilst remaining completely unobtrusive – I still find some of her images to be incredibly moving. I often find that my favourite photos are the candid ones, taken in a moment when others weren’t looking. Vivian was a master of this, since the very nature of her occupation – being a nanny –  is why she was so good at capturing moments in time while remaining invisible. Nanny’s and ‘the help’ are meant to be invisible, to be with people all the time, but to not fully be accepted or acknowledged.

Vivian was cultivating a form of ‘unknowability’ throughout her life. Although she remained a very private person, Vivian’s work include quite a number of self portraits. A form of self reflection, and often depicting her as merely part of her environment. She originally shot on a Rollieflex film camera, which allowed her to take photos without being noticed.

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A self portrait in a pane of glass – from Vivian’s wesbite.

 

Little did she know that people would spend years trying to unravel her story after she had passed away. Vivian remained a nanny and later a caregiver for her entire life. She was never financially stable, and was forced to sell some of her storage lockers where she kept all her hoarded newspaper clippings, flyers and rolls of film. Vivian might not have been able to enjoy the admiration that people have for her work, but instead left a massive body of work that inspire street and amateur photographers alike.

 

All images below by Vivian Maier. Available on her website here.

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