A full-time nanny by day, in her free time Vivian Maier was a photographer who documented the cities where she lived during the 50s and 60s. Her men’s-wear inspired attire was considered highly unconventional for the time. Despite her obvious talents, her body of work of over 100,000 photos remained in obscurity until shortly before her death in 2009. Since then, they have been hailed as some of the most compelling of the mid-twentieth century and been exhibited throughout Europe and North America.
Maier’s father was Austrian, her mother French, and she was born in New York. She spent her childhood divided between New York and France. She eventually settled in New York and then Chicago. She never married and worked as a nanny for forty years. Maier was so beloved by her former charges that they pooled their resources to care for her once she was no longer able to care for others.
Her first photos date from 1949 and show the French countryside and villagers. Any successful nanny has to be a great storyteller and that is what Maier did with her photos. Her pictures ran the gamut from smudge-faced children to prim socialites. A book about her life, Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, and a documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, have just been released by Maier’s number one fan, John Maloof. He became fascinated by her after he found hundreds of her prints in an auction. He presents her double-life that she kept secret from everyone, including those closest to her.
This week, my beginning French students are working on vocabulary to describe sports and hobbies. One of those expressions is faire de la photo (fare duh lah foetoe) means “to do photography”. I like that in French the verb faire means “to make” or “to do.” It’s an active verb, not a passive or fortuitous event. No matter how spontaneous a photo may seem, it’s usually the result of careful planning and technical skill, just like Vivien Maier’s – that and thousands, and thousands, and thousands of photos.