A self-portrait by Vivian Maier. Courtesy of the Maloof Collection.
A self-portrait by Vivian Maier. | Courtesy of the Maloof Collection.

Vivian Maier spent most of her adult life working as a nanny in Chicago and New York City, but in her downtime, she took photos of the everyday life around her. Wikipedia calls her “an eccentric American street photographer,” but one glance at her work — she took more than 100,000 photos during her career — and you will see she was much more than that.

The strange twist in her story is that most her photos were never seen — or developed, for that matter — until after her death in 2009. Maier kept her negatives, prints, audio recordings and film in a storage unit on Chicago’s North Side, and when payments stopped, her work was discovered and auctioned off.

The University of Louisville’s Photographic Archives recently acquired three of Maier’s prints and is displaying them in an exhibit titled “New Fine Prints: Recent Additions to the Collection.” The show features 21 pieces from various photographers, including August Sander, Steve McCurry, Berenice Abbott, Nicholas Nixon and Ralph Steiner.

According to Elizabeth E. Reilly, curator of the Photographic Archives, U of L purchased the Maier prints through the Howard Greenburg Gallery in New York. She says they’ll be added to the Fine Print collection.

“They are a wonderful example of mid-century street photography,” Reilly says. “The story of Maier’s photographs perfectly illustrates how the history of photography continues to evolve.”

"108th St. East, NYC" by Vivian Maier is on display at the U of L Photographic Archives.
“108th St. East, NYC” by Vivian Maier is on display at the U of L Photographic Archives.

Although an American citizen, Maier spent her childhood in France. She moved back to New York City in the early ’50s, where she honed her craft taking photos of street life. She relocated to Chicago in 1956 and continued to shoot photos while working as a nanny.

An excerpt from a website on Maier explains:

Interesting bits of Americana, the demolition of historic landmarks for new development, the unseen lives of various groups of people and the destitute, as well as some of Chicago’s most cherished sites were all meticulously catalogued by Vivian Maier.

posterSadly, Maier didn’t have much money at the end of her life, and three children she had nannied stepped up to help. They got her an apartment and took care of her until her death.

After her work was discovered in an abandoned storage unit, filmmaker and photographer John Maloof made it his mission to archive, catalogue and collect her work. He made the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier,” which is currently on the film festival circuit, and created an archive of her work, called the Maloof Collection.

“New Fine Prints” will be on display through March 6 at the Photographic Archives Gallery, located on the lower level of the Ekstrom Library. For more information, click here.

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Sara Havens is the Culture Editor at Insider Louisville. She's known around town as the Bar Belle and updates her blog (barbelleblog.com) daily. She's a former editor of LEO Weekly and has written for Playboy and The Alcohol Professor. Havens is the author of two books: "The Bar Belle" and "The Bar Belle Vol. 2."


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