Vivian Maier: Secretive star of 20th century street photography exhibited in UK for the first time

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Vivian Maier: Secretive star of 20th century street photography exhibited in UK for the first time
Vivian Maier, Self Portrait, not dated Copyright Estate of Vivian Maier Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery NY.

MILTON KEYNES.- MK Gallery presents the first exhibition in the UK of acclaimed photographer Vivian Maier (1926 – 2009) – uncovering the remarkable story of the mysterious Chicago nanny who led a double life as one of the greatest street photographers of the 20th Century, amassing hundreds of thousands of images which were hidden in a storage locker and remained undiscovered until 2007.

The exhibition at MK Gallery features over 140 black and white and colour photographs, as well as film and audio, which reveal the breadth of Maier’s work and her fascination for observing and recording everyday life.

For over 40 years, Maier worked as a nanny in New York and Chicago, known to the children she looked after as “a real-life Mary Poppins”. Endlessly curious but intensely private, her anonymity became her disguise. Always with her Rolleiflex camera, Maier captured daily life on the streets, producing an extraordinary body of work of more than 150,000 images, as well as Super 8 and 16mm films, prints, audio tapes, and reems of undeveloped film which she shared with virtually no one in her lifetime. Maier’s work came to light in 2007, just two years before her death, when her vast hoard of negatives was discovered stashed in a Chicago storage locker and auctioned – one of the great photographic discoveries of the century.

Her images, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s, are of the street life and architecture of New York and Chicago. She captured the relationships, interactions, and expressions of the masses on the street through tender and striking portraits of families, children, and women, presenting a distinctive record of urban America in the mid-20th Century. Maier also took many self-portraits, frequently casting herself in a shadow or reflection in a mirror.

From carefree children and glamorous housewives to the homeless and destitute, Maier’s portraits capture the highs and lows of everyday life. Street scenes with shop fronts, arcades and aerial shots use shadows and reflections to capture the improvised moments that make up a community. Smouldering furniture, abandoned toys, tangles of electric cables all set the scene as families, workers and commuters go about their daily business.

Being self-taught and anonymous, Maier presents a view of America that is as eclectic as it is intimate and piercing. Her craft and vision far surpassed that of any part-time hobbyist and although considered reclusive, she produced many experimental self-portraits. As with all her work, these images are infused with the wit, humour and deep sense of humanity that has attracted a cult following since Maier’s emergence after the Oscar-nominated documentary Finding Vivian Maier (2013).

Born in New York in 1926 to an Austro-Hungarian father and French mother, Maier split her time between Europe and the US before settling in New York in 1951. In 1956 she moved to Chicago, working as a nanny for families in an upper-class suburb for over 40 years. The families she lived with knew little about her life and background. She never married and had no children When her circumstances became difficult in later life, Maier was looked after by three of the children she’d worked for, who pooled together to pay for an apartment and took care of her until her death in 2009. Unbeknownst to them, one of Maier’s storage lockers – stuffed to the brim with negatives, film recordings, newspaper clippings, and books amassed throughout her lifetime – was auctioned off due to missed payments.

Anthony Spira, Director of MK Gallery, said: “Vivian Maier’s story is an extraordinary one. The nanny who lived secretly as a world-class photographer whose remarkable work remained virtually unknown in her lifetime is now hailed as one of the greatest recorders of American life in the 20th Century, cementing her place in the history of photography alongside Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus, and Robert Frank.”

The exhibition is curated by Anne Morin and produced by diChroma photography, with courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY.

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