Maier was an American nanny working in the mid-to-late twentieth century who, as it turns out, was also relentlessly capturing life on the streets of cities like New York and Chicago with her Rolleiflex. Oftentimes, it appears, her young charges would accompany her to neighbourhoods a world away from their middle-class upbringings. Maier’s vast oeuvre was only ‘discovered’ in 2007, when a storage locker containing negatives and other detritus was auctioned off to cover missed payments. This led to a 2013 documentary, Finding Vivian Maier – an attempt to grapple with a complex character, told by those who ‘knew’ her, inasmuch as anyone could know the nanny who lived upstairs in a suburban home, and by John Maloof, the de facto collector who by happenstance came across the photographer’s work at auction. Subsequently, Maier – who died in a care home in 2009 – has been retrospectively inserted into the canon of twentieth-century street photographers.
There’s an undeniable tension in the way Maier has been lifted from obscurity and placed alongside the great street photographers of the last century. In researching this piece, I came across a tweet by a photography specialist: “Ever wondered why Vivian Maier died in obscurity and [American photographer] William Eggleston is a celebrated artist?” the tweet asks, “Does anybody think Eggleston is such a good photographer that he would have become famous if he had had to work as, say, a bus driver?” But Eggleston, whose vivid use of colour was a turning point in photography as an art medium, is not Maier, and vice versa. Similarly, the construction of Maier as some sort of mysterious nanny – a difficult person as her former employers paint her – feeds the myth surrounding Maier. As Rose Lichter-Marck notes, writing in the New Yorker, “Maier challenges our ideas of how a person, an artist, and, especially, a woman should be. She didn’t try to use her work to accumulate cultural or economic capital.” That Maier did not develop many of her photographs in her lifetime does not mean she was a tortured artist – such a view “shoehorns her into the very conventions of capitalism and bourgeois values that she eschewed so aggressively.” Vivian Maier: Anthology resists falling into this trap of grappling with the complexities of whether or not Maier was an artist, a photographer or just a nanny – and leaves any judgment on her character largely up to the viewer.
The sheer number of negatives, the voice recordings, the newspaper clippings that Maier hoarded and amassed, do invite speculation. Why did she take so many photographs? Did she want people to see them? These are questions we cannot easily answer. And as these questions, together with her appearance in so many self-portrait shots show, it isn’t easy to consider the photography of Vivian Maier without taking notice of Vivian Maier the person. And certainly, the shadowy figure reflected in shop windows conveniently feed into the narrative of the elusive nanny.
But there is one self-portrait photograph that appears in Vivian Maier: Anthology that – I think – gives some indication of Maier’s approach. In the final photograph of the exhibition, Maier organises her distinctively indistinctive get-up (a burgundy hat and long navy coat) on the ground as if she is photographing herself. It was taken in the late 1980s, around the time that, as far as we know, Maier stopped taking photographs. In it, she reconstructs the image of herself as the nanny-cum-photographer hiding in plain sight. As the exhibition’s curator, Anne Morin, points out, Maier’s work captures those on the fringes of society – outside the American Dream – and perhaps then, Maier’s self-portraits are a record of her own existence as a person. Indeed, as Susan Sontag notes in On Photography, photographs “help people to take possession of a space in which they are insecure.”  In these images, Maier engages with her own self – self as simulacrum.
Flying under the radar, invisible on the street – as any good street photographer should be – Maier’s work mimics the image-saturated world of the American Dream. We see this in the neon signs reflected in a puddle on the sidewalk, and we see it in a 1977 self-portrait in which Maier captures her visage as it is reflected back to her in a mirror printed with the likeness of Marilyn Monroe (who had died fifteen years prior). Maier, as we learn towards the end of the exhibition, had an affinity for movies and movie stars; it is said that she had hoped to open a headshot studio in Los Angeles. Instead, she snuck into movie sets and captured stunt doubles on smoking breaks, and attended (again, perhaps snuck in to) movie premieres. Is Maier’s interest – or intrigue – in movies and their stars especially remarkable? Well, no, she was photographing in the latter years of the Hollywood star system and its mania. But also, yes – what compels someone who photographs street life to take a speedily-snapped shot of Audrey Hepburn at the premiere of My Fair Lady in Chicago, 1964?
Like Maier’s flat lay self-portrait, her photographs of movie stars (such as the contact sheet showing Kirk Douglas and his wife, Anne Buydens, at the premiere of Spartacus in 1960) reveal a reality constructed from images. “Celebrities,” writes the sociologist Chris Rojek in his book of the same name, “are cultural fabrications.” And the desire that is perpetuated by celebrity culture is a reflection of “[t]he logic of capitalist accumulation [that] requires consumers to constantly exchange their wants.” That is to say, “Celebrities humanize the process of commodity consumption.” Maier, if we take up Lichter-Marck’s argument, did not buy into the conventions of capitalist cultural production – but she certainly saw it at play as she haunted the streets of mid-century America. In that blurred image of Hepburn at a premiere, we instantly recognise the movie star who was projected around the world, a role which the actress herself performs even here in ‘real life’. Echoes of that performance are replicated in Maier’s photographs of middle- and upper-class women, clad in chiffon and fox fur stoles, in and around the city, and the performance is exposed once more as a woman’s skirt is blown up by a gust of wind – a bona fide ‘Marilyn Moment’. In doing so, Maier identifies the ways in which an American dream, perpetuated by the star system, is recreated and replayed on the streets of the city.
But what of those who do not, or cannot participate, in this charade? In Vivian Maier: Anthology, the photographer’s images of the wealthy are juxtaposed with those who are not, revealing a difference in approach and framing. In one photograph of a cigar-smoking businessman, Maier gets uncomfortably close to her subject – in a manner that recalls Bruce Gilden’s slightly grotesque black-and-white images of the faded grandeur of New York in the late twentieth century. Shot from below, Maier depicts this figure with a certain detachment – a detachment that is directly contrasted with another photograph that is displayed directly below in the exhibition. Here, a man, whose aged face and hunched shoulders betray a very different life experience, is portrayed straight-on and with a greater humanity than Maier often affords her subjects. There are many such photographs of those living on the edges of society. Perhaps these people become Maier’s more frequent subjects because, like her, they are ‘invisible’. Or possibly, just because they are there. I think we can better understand why she chooses her subject matter by considering one of the groups in society that Maier often returns to: children.
As Morin – who it should be noted resists attempting to ‘know’ Maier - points out, as a nanny, she would have spent a lot of time with children, and would have seen how the world unfolds from their point of view. That much is evident in so much of the photographer’s work, as she adopts a childlike gaze and seeks out the novel and the strange. At first glance, Maier’s images of children recall those of fellow street photographer Helen Levitt, who captured the inventive play of working-class children on the streets of New York throughout much of the twentieth century. Levitt reveals a realm of the city that does not exist to the adult eye, in which imagined worlds are constructed and the realm of grown-ups is recreated in miniature form by her young subjects. Yet, Maier’s children tend to meet her gaze, often with an expression of inquisitiveness. Perhaps like us, they wonder who Maier is, and what her intentions (as a photographer) may be. Walter Benjamin, writing about his experiences growing up in early-twentieth-century Berlin, notes that childhood is “irretrievable”. That term best explains Maier’s images of (working class) children; here, they exist outside of the American Dream, not yet participating in its performances. Not yet mastered in the art of performance and playing their role in the capitalist system, they meet Maier’s gaze without flinching. Reviewing Vivian Maier: Anthology for The Guardian, Sean O’Hagan observes that Maier’s children “often inhabit the same urban milieu, long since disappeared, as their hard-bitten parents” – an important detail that cannot be overstated.
In contrast to Maier’s portraits of children, her images of those on the fringes of society, those who, as the exhibition explains, are invisible, are not always approached with humanity. Take, for example, an image of New York in 1953 that appears in the first room of Vivian Maier: Anthology. Maier captures three men perched on a door ledge at night-time. Only one of the figures meets Maier’s gaze; unamused, he appears to shift his position as the camera shutter is released. As for his companions, one covers his face (perhaps acknowledging Maier’s intrusion, perhaps in a moment of despair) whilst his legs hide the face of the second whose state of conscious is not apparent. Maier’s subjects here look and feel uncomfortable in her presence. Scribbled on the wall next to the man who meets Maier’s gaze appear the words “GOD MADE HEAV[EN ON] EART[H]”. Here, then, Maier portrays the unwilling objects of her gaze in order to capture those ‘hard-bitten’ adults who barely exist, generation after generation, in a capitalist society whose only constant is change.
In this sense, then, Maier’s surrealist shots of a sadistic Snoopy motif, a smouldering chair or a baby doll plotting its escape from a wastebin are not just examples of her undeniably dark humour, but part of a wider project in documenting an outwardly stable society that is always teetering on the edge of collapse. In one photograph, taken on 9th February 1953, Maier’s captures the skyline of the city from atop of the clock tower of the Chase Manhattan Bank Building in Queens. But it is not so much this unique view of the city that captures the eye than the revelation that the building’s neo-gothic turrets are merely a façade, as Maier captures the badly painted brickwork from behind. From this perspective, we see the construction of an edifice, a capitalist American Dream out of fleeting, unstable images. By contrast, in another photograph, Maier documents a near-destructed building that, in its ruination, shows the defiant cityscape behind it. Does that skyline still exist? I cannot be sure. But as Maier observes in a voice recording from 1976, “[n]othing is meant to last forever. We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel, you get on, you have to go to the end and so on and someone else takes your place.” Maier’s life spent on the outside of ‘heaven on earth’ cannot be reduced to a tragic failure to move from obscure nanny to revered artist. And so, did she intend for all this work to ever be known and scrutinised so intensely? Of that, we can never be sure, but we should certainly be critical of any bourgeois narrative about her work that distracts us from the writing Maier saw on the wall.
 Rose Lichter-Marck, ‘Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women’, The New Yorker (9 May 2014).
 Susan Sontag, On Photography (Penguin, 1987), p. 9.
 Chris Rojek, Celebrity (Reaktion Books, 2001), p. 10; p. 14.
 Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900 (Belknap, 2006), p. 37.
 Sean O’Hagan, ‘Vivian Maier: Anthology review – the attentive, intimate images behind the myth’, The Guardian (19 June 2022).