The 1950s Nanny-Turned-Street Photography Legend

A 1950s children’s nanny who kept her camera stashed in a locked attic—and who left her legacy in a storage locker filled with 100,000 negatives, 700 rolls of undeveloped color film, 8mm and 16mm movies—was never appreciated in her lifetime. But now, despite her painstaking lengths to maintain privacy, Vivian Maier is approaching household fame akin to Diane Arbus or Helen Levitt.

In 2007, an unsuspecting real estate agent named John Maloof, looking for historic images of a particular Chicago neighborhood, purchased a storage locker at auction. Two years later (and three days after her death, as he would soon find out when he saw her obituary), Maloof began to develop the negatives and, unknowingly, unearthed Maier’s secret world. For decades, the free-spirited nanny of American, French, and Austro-Hungarian descent had combed the streets of the world (in particular Chicago and New York) with a camera in hand. Although her poignant, artfully framed snapshots piece together a vivid portrait of mid-century America, very little is known about Maier—save the contents of said storage locker, which includes several self-portraits.

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