New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 2 January 25 to February 4, 2012

A Secretive Eye
Vivian Maier
Photographs from the Maloof Collection
Florida, January 9, 1957 by Vivian Maier. Source:
Vivian Maier, "Florida, January 9, 1957"

By now, you may have read or heard bits of the unusual story of Vivian Maier, the full-time nanny/part-time street photographer. What’s so unusual and has intrigued the fine art photographic community is that she wasn’t just one of those “virtually” unknown photographers who had to die to be discovered – she was completely and totally unknown. And her work might never have been discovered if it hadn’t been for John Maloof, a young Chicago entrepreneur who paid $400 for a trunk full of her negatives and prints at a thrift auction in 2007. Maloof had been doing research for a book about Chicago and knew nothing about photography, but after seeing Maier’s photographs, he posted some of her pictures on a Flickr blog. When they generated an enthusiastic response, Maloof managed to acquire more of Maier’s work from the same auction – he now calls his find “The Maloof collection.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Vivian Maier was born in New York, spent time overseas in her early years and returned to New York to work as a nanny from 1951 to 1956. On her days off, she would walk around with a camera, usually a twin-lens Rolleiflex, photographing whatever caught her eye. She then worked as a nanny in Chicago for 40 years and continued to take pictures, including numerous self-portraits as well as travel photographs.

In all those years, Maier never showed her work to anyone. One question a lot of people are asking now is “Why not?” It seemed Maier was familiar with the work of her contemporaries such as Cartier-Bresson. But she chose to live in her own private world–she died at age 86 leaving behind 100,000 negatives and hundreds of rolls of undeveloped color and black and white film. It means some of her photographs haven’t seen the light of day yet and her new admirers are eagerly waiting to see what new treasures of hers could develop.

New York City, September 10, 1955 by Vivian Maier. Source:
Vivian Maier, "New York City, September 10, 1955"

The fact is that none of this back story would have mattered or gone this far if her photographs weren’t masterworks. Many clearly are. Howard Greenberg said, “...As one looks at the body of her work, she reveals her deeper interests. Then one tries to imagine who she was, what motivated her, her personality. It is not everyday that one becomes so involved and even obsessed with a particular photographer.”

There are 56 black and white and sepia toned prints in the exhibition at Greenberg and many compel you to take a closer look. Most are from the 1950s and they show how well she captured the era—the faces, styles, the architecture, the street scenes—as few photographers have. Maier focused on women, children, the elderly and the down-and-out. Not new subjects for a street shooter, but she had an eye for the details that make her pictures special. One example is the photo of the back pockets of a cop that shows numerous strings of traffic tickets sticking out. There are a series of portraits, mostly close-ups of elderly women who aren’t afraid to look directly at the camera. Maier had to engage them first to get that close. And then there’s “Florida, January 9, 1957,” – a photograph of the back of a woman in a party dress walking towards a 1950’s Chevy. It’s nighttime and she’s in the spotlight. We can only imagine what she looks like, but that’s part of the appeal. The image stays with you as do others here. I also found Maier’s self-portraits instructive because they help you understand how she saw herself and how this plainly dressed woman with a camera could connect with her subjects.

Don’t deny yourself the pleasure of seeing something both old and new. Vivian Maier is here to stay.

Vivian Maier
Photographs from the Maloof Collection

Howard Greenberg
41 E 57th St. 14th Fl
Midtown         Map

212 334 0010

Thursday, December 15 to
Saturday, January 28, 2012
Hours: Tues - Sat, 10 to 6