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Vivian Maier: Amateur with a Sharp Eye

Full-time nanny Vivian Maier was an avid street photographer.

By Marie DoezemaContributor / April 12, 2011

This Jan. 6 photo shows collector John Maloof standing in front of Vivian Maier's photographs hanging at the Cultural Center in Chicago. Maier, who worked as a nanny, scoured the streets day and night, venturing into strange and sometimes dicey neighborhoods. Her constant companion was a camera. Over five decades, she shot tens of thousands of photos. Few were seen by anyone but her. That's the way she wanted it. But that's all changed now, thanks to Maloof who stumbled upon a huge grocery box in an auction house, discovered her work and has now become her champion.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

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The story of Vivian Maier's life is as captivating as her photographs, and for many of the same reasons. Her images give us a little and we want more: a woman's hands clutched behind a polka-dot dress; a birthmark on a spindly leg; a man with few teeth eating hungrily perched on a curb. From New York to Chicago, Paris to Cairo, Maier captured the quotidian, causing us to notice what we otherwise wouldn't notice, offering glimpses into humanity that are revealing but limited, intimate yet detached.

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What we know about Maier is sparse. She was a nanny with a camera, a caretaker, and a collector. She read newspapers voraciously. She had strong opinions about politics and film. She wore clunky shoes and walked with a stride that meant business. Though one family Maier worked for has described her as a Mary Poppins-type, others remember her as something of a recluse, private and often abrupt.

Now, two years after her death, her legacy has taken a dramatic turn.

"She's been broadcast across the entire globe. Millions of people are looking at her work," says Joel Meyerowitz, photographer and coauthor of "Bystander," a seminal book on street photography.

Born in New York in 1926 to a French mother and Austrian father, Maier grew up in France and the United States. As an adult, she traveled the world but eventually settled in the Chicago area, working as a nanny in various households in the city's North Shore suburbs. The unofficial spokesman for her work is John Maloof, a young former real estate agent who bought 30,000 of her negatives for around $400 at an auction in 2007.

Though Maier was alive at the time, many of her possessions were for sale due to her delinquency in paying for a storage locker. When she died in April 2009, she had no idea what had become of her work, nor of the interest it was beginning to stir.

Colin Westerbeck, director of the California Museum of Photography and coauthor with Mr. Meyerowitz of "Bystander," credits Mr. Maloof for the intense interest Maier's work has created. "He's been a considerable posthumous press agent. He's got the website, and he's contacted a lot of people, and his distribution and talking up of the work is a lot of what's given exceptional interest to the work."

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