Vivian Maier: One of the Greatest 20th Century Photographers Who Was Almost Forgotten

When documenting the story of humanity behind a lens, you will find love, sorrow, hope and humor — and nowhere is that more evident than in Vivian Maier‘s photographs.

If you haven’t heard of her, you’re not alone.

There was a time when no one knew who Maier was, but now collectors are desperate for her prints. That’s partially because for many years street photography wasn’t popular. It wasn’t visually colorful and pleasing to the average viewer; however, the candid moments in these snapshots have soul to them.

They are endearing, and Maier captures that sensibility in her raw images.

“That rare case of a genuine undiscovered artist, she left behind a huge trove of pictures that rank her with the great American mid-century street photographers. The best pictures bring to life a fantastic swath of history that now needs to be rewritten to include her,” says Michael Mimmelman of The New York Times.

While numerous photographers have come and gone over the years, Maier was far from a mediocre street photographer — or even someone touting the greatness of her own work. According to John Maloof, an amateur historian who discovered her work back in 2008, Maier was an elusive, secretive nanny in the wealthy suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She was so elusive that even people who “knew” her said that her entire life was a mystery. They weren’t even aware that she took photographs from the 1950s into the 1990s.

Maloof stumbled upon Maier’s old storage locker at a furniture and antique auction. In it were thousands of negatives and countless rolls of undeveloped film showcasing her incredible work, which could have been otherwise ignored and forgotten.

From what Maloof knows, the auction house acquired her belongings after she had been delinquent on payments. When he first purchased her locker, he actually didn’t even know the magnitude of the treasure he uncovered or what “street photography” was. The young historian was immediately interested in meeting her in person, but before he had the opportunity of doing so, in 2009 he found her obituary in the newspaper.

Photography was Maier’s hidden passion and with it she was able to capture frames that told stories. The interplay between the elements in a frame were gracefully combined — almost as if she had choreographed each scene — bringing a humanity to this often ignored population. Once unknown to the world and years after her death, Maier is now hailed as one of the greatest 20th Century photographers, along with Diane Arbus Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Weegee. Her work has been collected in books, including Vivian Maier: Street Photographer and Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows.

If you are interested in finding out more about this amazing photographer, John Maloof and Charlie Siskel recently directed and produced a documentary about her life: Finding Vivian Maier. Throughout the film, her story emerges out of interviews with curious neighbors, store owners and the parents who hired her as their nanny.

Both her photography and this narrative urges viewers to look within our own lives and ask questions about their place in the world.