Vivian Maier: She never defended herself as an artist but just did the work.

TEXT:Emily Zhou    DATE: 2021.3.30

Prior to 2007, almost nobody knew the name "Vivian Maier" and the image of a woman with a ROLLEIFLEX camera. In 2007, the real estate agent John Maloof bought a suitcase of old photos and negatives at the RPN Sales and Auction House for $400, henceforth the name "Vivian Mayer” and the attached image, as well as tens of thousands of documentary photographs and undeveloped film negatives have gradually been exposed to the public after years of concealment.

Who is Vivian Maier? This is not a new topic in the circle of documentary photography nowadays. The discovery of Vivian Meyer’s photography and the tracing of her mysterious identity and experience are gradually being recorded and exposed in articles, publications and films, etc, which has aroused widespread interest. "Paradoxical", "Bold", "Mysterious", "Eccentric", "Private"...these words appeared at the beginning of the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” released in 2014 by John Maloof, which was a compilation of information from people who have a connection with Vivian Maier and have contributed to a description of her. Someone recalled that " I never thought that she would take pictures", while others believed that "she always carried a camera with her". These two very different impressions gradually weaved together to form a mysterious image of Vivian Maier.


New York, New York State, October 18, 1953

© John Maloof Collection, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY, and diChroma Photography

Nanny Vivian Maier

“Viv was supposed to be downtrodden, right? She was, like, a nanny. That’s not considered to be a pretty highranking position in life. Not married, not any social life to speak of. She didn’t have these measures of status that people aspire to, but she didn’t have to compromise one bit. She did what she wanted. That’s what she taught me, is that she got the life she wanted. She had it.”

——Sarah Matthews Ludington recalled Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier was a nanny. This is the first information that John Maloof found when he traced the story of Vivian Maier. In 1956, Vivian was enlisted to take care of the three children in Avron Gensburg’s house and worked in this family for nearly 17 years until the children grew up. In Mrs. Gensburg's eyes, Vivian seemed to be not very interested in the job of a nanny, but she "did not know what else she could do". [1] In the days that followed, Vivian worked as a nanny among middle-class families and was associated with several families. However, not every family and child liked and understood her as much as the Gensburg family. With her unsocial, mysterious, and private personality and behavior, she has encountered incomprehension, rejection, and dismissal through those few decades, but she has also briefly had trust, love, and respect.


John, Lane and Matthew, Three Sons of Avron Gensburg

In 2009, when Maloof first found the name Vivian Maier on the envelope with the film and researched it on the Internet, he found that the name appeared in the obituary board of the Chicago Tribune just a few days previously. This obituary was issued by the three children of the Gensburg family where Vivian once worked. In their narration, Vivian was weird and lonely. She didn’t seem to have any family members, and she never had any love life or children, but she was “like our mother” [2].

In those massive photos, film negatives, and videos created by Vivian, there were a number of images of children who had been in her care. The children recorded by the camera appeared in the streets, natural forests and gardens, with the pure and clear eyes and smiles. Mrs. Gensburg recalled that Vivian was happy to share photos of the children with them, but “If you like one, you have to pay for it... But obviously Vivian didn’t want to profit from these photos, just like a painter who is reluctant to sell the work." [3] At Gensburg’s home, Vivian remodeled her toilet into a darkroom. Her life was boring, with no friends or dates, and when she didn’t need to work, she just hung her camera around her neck and went everywhere to take pictures and locked herself in the darkroom to develop photographs where no one was allowed to enter.

03 薇薇安镜头下的孩子们.jpg

A Kid in Vivian Maier’s Camera

Image from Discovering Vivian Maier, P138

04 薇薇安镜头下的孩子们.jpg

A Kid in Vivian Maier’s Camera

Screenshot from the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” released in 2014 by John Maloof

“Why is a nanny taking all these photos? Where did she develop her shooting techniques?” Regarding Vivian Meyer's life experience, Maloof and others continue to piece together bits and pieces from her works and the clues told by everyone.

“Selfie Photographer” Vivian Maier

Self-portraits are an extremely important part of Vivian Mayer's photographic works. This time, the exhibition “A Hidden Genius: Finding Vivian Maier” held in Today Art Museum features Vivian’s self-portrait series.


 Chicago, Illinois, around 1974

© John Maloof Collection, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY, and diChroma Photography

Installation View of “A Hidden Genius: Finding Vivian Maier”

Perhaps because of the angle of the view that the ROLLEIFLEX camera uses as it can be hung on the chest to shoot—the camera was shooting from below, which gave her pictures a towering magnitude. In those selfies, Vivian often wore a man’s jacket and a big hat, wandering the streets and alleys. Through various mirrors and reflective surfaces, she gazed at people who are viewing her images, indicating her indifference to the surrounding environment. In these selfies, there were almost no group photos (except for a few with children). She stood alone in the camera's freeze-frame thousands of times. If the viewers accidentally collided with her wandering gaze, they might be able to read the interrogation of the world hidden in Vivian’s eyes.

 The Shadows in Vivian Maier’s Camera

Image from Discovering Vivian Maier, P98-99

"The shadow" was another way that Vivian herself was able to enter the picture. In the street scenes and landscape photos, Vivian’s own shadow drifts away from the edge of the screen from time to time, seeming to be connected to the world in such a vague way. Sometimes these shadows would blend with the exhibits in the window of galleries or shops or the natural landscape, and some might participate in the stories of others under the lens at the edge of the picture.

 Vivian Maier, Selfie series

Regarding Vivian’s Selfie series, there are currently many interpretations in the professional field of photography. For more people who are keen on Vivian’s story, the self-portrait series is undoubtedly an extremely important breakthrough and a chance to step into her life. From the gaze in her lens, people are trying to read the image of the world in her eyes. Perhaps as Maloof said, “Through Vivian Maier’s selfies of her true self, those continuous related questions can be answered step by step." [4]

On-the-spot Reporter Vivian Maier

“……But what did you think of the impeachment?”

“Am I on tape?”

“Yes, you are. Come on.”

“……I don’t know.”

“Well, you should have an opinion. Women are supposed to be opinionated, I hope.”

——Cited from the video clips created by Vivian Maier

“She loves collecting stuff. This is another impression many people have of Vivian Maier. She would hide things in various corners, building her own “treasure trove”, or use tens of thousands of newspapers to surround herself, and hated others for disposing of her “collection” without authorization. 

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15 薇薇安的“收藏” 纪录片截图.jpg

 Vivian Maier’s “Collection”

Screenshot from the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” released in 2014 by John Maloof

Newspapers are an extremely important part of Vivian’s collections. One of her employers, Linda Matthews, recalled that Vivian loved reading newspapers very much. In the New York Times to which they subscribed, Vivian was especially keen to follow bizarre and cruel reports. She paid particular attention to the headlines and stories that revealed the folly and selfishness of humanity, and presented a clear attitude of “I told you so”. She made a film about the “1972 Chicago murder of a mother and baby”. Also, during the Chicago riots that broke out after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, she wandered the chaotic streets with a camera to record relevant scenes. 

Chicago Riots in Vivian Maier’s Camera

Image from Discovering Vivian Maier, P232,238,239

In Vivian’s shots, whether it was the capture of a static moment or a dynamic narrative of an image, she always conveyed her own insights and opinions on facts, society and life. She was not good at communicating with the subject, and often pressed the shutter directly and decisively. However, she could always find the best distance and angle to shoot. By doing so, it sometimes froze the offended and surprised faces of the subject. What lay behind these vivid expressions precisely showcased Vivian’s outstanding ability to grasp the moment of pressing the shutter and the timing to enter the spaces of others. Through this language of the lens, people would be more willing to believe that the person behind the camera is a battlefield or on-the-spot reporter with a rich experience, or the spy-like anonymous name “Miss V. Smith” that Vivian was willing to use, instead of a normal nanny belonging to the lower rungs of society. 

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“V. Smith” Signature by Vivian Maier

Screenshot from the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” released in 2014 by John Maloof

However, Vivian Maier had such a complex existence. She had the most ordinary identity, and because of it, she could capture and perceive the complexity of the world and individuals with a microscope-like perspective. With these intricate expressions, events, and human nature, Vivian applied a private perspective to outline the picture of American public society under the prevalence of the “American Dream” in the last century. Meanwhile, she also had a great deal of self and current thinking, insights and interrogations.


“Street Shots” by Vivian Maier

Image from Discovering Vivian Maier, P194

Nowadays, the understanding of "Vivian Maier" is still slowly advancing. From the known stories and memories, we can learn that Vivian did have an extreme resistance to men and marriage, and she would also indicate the cruelty and bloodshed of the reality in her dealings with children, such as taking the children to slums, slaughterhouses, etc. It seems that through these actions, the true face of society was deliberately revealed to the children. Although these behaviors were warned about and prohibited by most families, she still loved children very much and knew how to positively interact with them. It is also interesting to note that in Vivian’s communication with her employer, they felt that she always foresaw the separation and loss as if she knew that she was going to be alone for a lifetime, and the only thing that she was concerned about was the suitcases of photos and negatives she always carried with her. 

Exhibition View

As Vivian has gained fame in the circles of photography and the art industry to some extent, issues such as her heirs and copyright disputes have gradually emerged. For most art institutions such as museums, there are still some concerns about the determination of the artistic value of Vivian Maier’s photographic works. The biggest reason is that Vivian only developed a few photos before her death—there is still a high possibility that some photographs were enlarged in a commercial photo development shop at the time. In fact, more of the works were restored, enlarged and developed by John Maloof and others through different processes. In this circumstance, the problem of the third party’s intervention and interpretation of Vivian’s works is triggered. The art institutions are judging to what extent the published photos can reflect Vivian Maier’s true intentions. This is still debatable.

“Well, I suppose nothing is meant to fast forever. We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel. You get on, you have to go to the end, and then somebody else takes their place. Now I’m going to close and quickly run next door to do my work.”——Vivian Maier


 Screening of documentary “Finding Vivian Maier”

27 展览新场还原的薇薇安·迈尔冲洗照片的暗房.jpgThe darkroom where Vivian Maier developed photos restored at the exhibition site

Text by Emily Weimeng Zhou, edited by Sue.

Except for special annotations, images courtesy of the organizer. 


[1]”A Visual Diary of A Nanny“,Tong Jiahan edited, Discovering Vivian Maier, P9, 2016.

[2] John Maloof, “Finding Vivian Maier”, 2014. Source: Tecent Video

[3] ”A Visual Diary of A Nanny“,Tong Jiahan edited, Discovering Vivian Maier, P10, 2016.

[4] Wang Rui, “Enjoying a Photo Shoot: The Photographing Life of Vivian Maier”, Tong Jiahan edited, Discovering Vivian Maier, P60, 2016.


[1] Exhibition Text of “A Hidden Genius: Finding Vivian Maier”, Today Art Museum, 2021.

[2] John Maloof, “Finding Vivian Maier”, The United States, 2014.

[3] Tong Jiahan edited, Discovering Vivian Maier, Beijing: China National Photographic Art Publishing House, 2016.

28 海报.jpg

“A Hidden Genius: Finding Vivian Maier”

Duration: 20.3.2021 – 30.6.2021

Venue: Space No. 2, Today Art Museum, Beijing

Curators: Anne Morin, Jess Zhang

Exhibition Director: Peng Wei

Organizer: Today Art Museum

Support by: diChroma Photography