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the nanny photographer Camera in one hand, child in another: Vivian Maier

An American street photographer with an eye for the details of human life that aren’t always the prettiest, but which show us for who we really are. The crumpled trousers of a man clutching a woman’s hand in the street. An older gentleman snoozing on the job.

 Vivian Maier lived in Chicago for most of her life, although she was a French citizen. She was born in New York in 1926 to a French mother and Austrian father. After spending some of the first part of her life in France, she worked as a nanny in the United States.

She would take the children out for the day, her Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera slung around her neck, and take snaps as she went along. What she created was a vast number of images showing everyday life in America in the second half of the 20th century. She took pictures of families in her neighbourhood, children playing with tyres on the street, couples eating dinner in run-down apartment buildings or young men on their way to work.

Maier stopped working as a nanny in the 1990s and died in 2008 after sustaining a head injury from slipping on ice. She had been keeping her collection of negatives in a storage facility, but ran out of money to pay the rent on it two years before her death. The contents ended up at auction.

One of the images caught the eye of John Maloof, a real estate agent who dabbled in work as an amateur historian in his spare time. He got his hands on a vast collection of 30,000 negatives for the mere sum of $400 (CHF399). As he began to sort through the negatives, he came across Maier’s name, searched for her on the internet and discovered her death notice, published in a newspaper a few days earlier.

Maloof started to post Maier’s images online and was gradually contacted by people interested in photography who told him he had something special on his hands. The fame of the photos grew, and word spread, leading to exhibitions in the US and Europe. Maloof has carried on buying up negatives created by Maier and now has more than 100,000.

Taking the Long Way Home, is the first solo exhibition of the work of Vivian Maier in Switzerland. It runs at the Photobasteiexternal link in Zurich, from March 3 to April 3. The exhibition has more than 150 prints, focusing on Maier’s time in New York (early 1950s) and in Chicago (1956).

(Text: Jo Fahy, pictures: Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, picture editor: Christoph Balsiger)

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