The Greatest Photo Collection Never Seen

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Coney Island, New York, 1950s. (Photograph by Vivian Maier/Courtesy Cityfiles Press.)

Since Vivian Maier’s photographs were unearthed at an auction several years back, her work and her story have captivated people across the world. The idea that a lifelong nanny was secretly an astoundingly good street photographer—that the greatest collection of photos of Chicago from the 1950s through the 1970s had been sitting undiscovered in storage unit on the South Side—prompted blog post after blog post, story after story, exhibit after exhibit. Most of these offered very little in terms of biographical information about the highly private Maier, who didn’t seem to have any family or close friends.

But surely there had been someone. A secret lover? A neighbor turned confidant, who would turn up and explain what drove Maier to carry a camera around her neck every day of her life, to capture beautiful, moving, and humorous portraits and scenes and share them with no one? Co-authors Richard Cahan and Michael Williams spent the last year attempting to fill the gaps in the story of Vivian Maier. They contacted just about every home she’d worked in, interviewed the children she cared for, the neighbors who watched her with skepticism as she pointed her camera into garbage cans. They found the people who repaired her cameras and those who sold her film. And the answer, sadly, for those of us hoping to get even further into Vivian Maier’s brain, is no. There was no one. Maier’s only partner in life, her only confidant, was her camera.

The images below, along with the majority of the other images in Cahan and Williams’ book Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows have never before been seen. She kept them locked away from the families she worked for, never sharing them with anyone—even herself. The images come from 20,000 scanned negatives that don’t appear ever to have been printed during her lifetime.

Wilmette Beach, 1968. (Photograph by Vivian Maier/Courtesy Cityfiles Press)

This is the second book of Maier’s work to emerge since the reports about the cache of images went viral in early 2011. The first, Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, was a selection of the images won at auction by collector and Chicago historian John Maloof. This new book features those in the possession of another collector, Jeff Goldstein. Cahan and Williams, who specialize in sifting through old photos,  reached out to Goldstein soon after they learned about the discovery.  (I’ve written about one of Cahan and Williams’ projects previously —Who We Were: A Snapshot History of America.)

The moment before Williams delved into the archive, he felt exhilaration and anxiety. The whole photography world was talking about incredibly talented “nanny street photographer” and he was going to see a big chunk of her collection before anyone else. But what if they weren’t any good? What if the quality of the 80 or so that had inspired the initial praise, was just a fluke.

Quickly his fear disappeared. “From the moment I started going through I saw this was a really serious collection and she is serious photographer,” Williams recalls. These new images span four decades and her travels across America and Europe. Because Maier’s camera was constantly with her, the act of going through the scanned negatives was like entering this mysterious woman’s head and reliving day after day, week after week.

Wilmette Beach, 1968. (Photograph by Vivian Maier/Courtesy Cityfiles Press)

“The process of going through them for me was hypnotizing,” he says. Initially he was looking for one theme to emerge, but then he realized that the dominant subject was obvious: Maier’s life. 

As Wiliams made his final edit he did not attempt to highlight the most impressive photos in the collection, rather he attempted to build a sequence that would tell Maier’s story. Paging through the book, we watch Maier developing her photographic eye in postwar France, charming strangers on the beach of Lake Michigan, wandering through the roughest parts of Chicago, and expressing a photojournalistic sensibility at the Democratic National Convention of 1968. We are with her as her eyes move from a dog looking at the sky to the sky itself and as her interests transition from sweet babies on the beach to political pamphlets decrying abortion.

It’s unclear why Vivian Maier did not appear to have these rolls printed. Perhaps she ran out of money or could not keep up with sheer volume of photos she’d taken. Or perhaps she simply didn’t need to. In a time when photography has become so intertwined with instant gratification (Instagram likes, Facebook shares, Tumblr notes) it’s easy to forget that for some the act of photography is entirely about process. Vivian Maier carefully documented every day of her life. The motivation, this latest book suggests, wasn’t to see the results on shiny paper or to impress others, but to process them in her mind.

New York City 1950s. (Photograph by Vivian Maier/Courtesy Cityfiles Press)
New York City 1950s. (Photograph by Vivian Maier/Courtesy Cityfiles Press)
Wilmette, 1968. (Photograph by Vivian Maier/Courtesy Cityfiles Press)
The chicken man, 1967, Maxwell Street Market and skid row on west Madison Street in Chicago. (Photograph by Vivian Maier/Courtesy Cityfiles Press)
Maxwell Street Market and skid row on West Madison Street in Chicago, 1967. (Photograph by Vivian Maier/Courtesy Cityfiles Press)
Woman taunts a police officer before the start of the Democratic Conventionat the International ampitheater Chicago in 1968.  (Photograph by Vivian Maier/Courtesy Cityfiles Press)

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