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mystery girl

This nanny died before her incredible secret photographic talent was revealed

Vivian Maier was a nanny who took thousands of photographs, most of which were not developed.

VivianMaierFilm / YouTube

“Well, I suppose nothing is meant to last 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 has the same opportunity to go to the end and so on.” – Vivian Maier


She was a nanny. She was unmarried. She often wore anachronistic clothing and was both remarkable and unremarkable.

She was born in the USA. Or was it France? She had a French accent. She had a fake accent.

She loved children. She had no children. She disliked some children.

She was 7ft tall. She was 5ft 9.

She was paradoxical and interesting, she was a woman who people knew but who nobody knew.

She was one of the 20th century’s greatest street photographers.

Just who was Vivian Maier?

The Nanny Secret This photograph taken Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011 at an exhibit of Vivian Maier's photography at the Chicago Cultural Center, shows a 1984 letter sent to Maier soliciting her services as a nanny in Chicago AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

If the lines above seem like a bundle of contradictions, then a new film about Maier’s life might provide you some answers, but even more questions.

Finding Vivian Maier is co-directed by Charlie Siskel and John Maloof. The latter is the young Chicagoan who bought a box of negatives at an auction in 2007 while searching for images for a local history book.

Initially, Maloof put them aside, but after scanning some of the negatives, he realised he had some incredible special photographs in his possession.

In 2009, the same year Maier died, Maloof posted this link on Flickr, asking what he should do with the images he now owned:

vivian maier 1

The reaction was incredible – it was clear he now owned photos that were not of the usual amateur photographer standard.

The Nanny Secret AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Hungry for more of Maier’s work, he sought and bought more of her possessions, finding himself the owner of thousands of negatives, and undeveloped rolls of film, as well as numerous books, rumpled hats and shirts, personal tchotchkes, piles of newspapers and letters.

In essence, Maloof became the new owner of Maier’s life, and after he discovered she had recently passed away, he could not abandon this new responsibility.

In Finding Vivian Maier, we see how this intriguing woman documented her life, venturing into dangerous or poor parts of town, often bringing her reluctant child charges with her.

We also realise that Vivian Maier left various and differing impressions on the lives of the people she met.

The Nanny Secret AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Piecing together Maier’s story has become Maloof’s life, and he treats this task as sensitively as he can in the film, even when the subject turns quite dark.

Maier appears to have been a forthright, passionate but slightly reclusive woman, who was sensitive to injustice and uncompromising about the way she lived her life.

The question ‘what was a nanny doing taking photographs?’ – as Maloof asks at the beginning of the film – underlines not only that she stepped out of prescribed gender and societal roles from the 1950s, but that these assumptions still linger on.

Maloof is frustrated at what he sees as a refusal of the art world to accept Maier’s posthumously developed work, but at the same time he has been able to exhibit her photos in the United States and Europe.

[image alt="The Nanny Secret" src="" width="466" height="500" title="" class="alignnone" /end]

Whether Vivian Maier is ever considered a ‘great’ by those in the higher echelons of the Art world makes no odds when you witness the responses to her work.

Technically brilliant, exquisitely framed, whether they were snapshots of downtrodden lives or experimental self-portraits, Maier’s photographs show that she had that rare combination that makes a great photographer.

Just as the chemical mix needed in the darkoom has to be 100% correct to develop an image, Maier had a combination of talents that allowed her take such stunning shots.

She had the eye, the nose for a good shot and sense of mystery, an empathy for the vulnerable, and a talent for working with light and shadow.

The Nanny Secret In this photo taken Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011, John Maloof looks at Vivian Maier's negatives on a light table at his home in Chicago. AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

But, like us all, she wasn’t perfect. This, the documentary makes clear.

Some might call it a ‘failing’ that she never appeared to try and bring her work to a wider audience, but only she knows the reason behind that.

The rest of us can feel grateful for whatever twist of fate led her to layer and pile her life into the boxes that ended up in the hands of the capable John Maloof.

The Nanny Secret AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

You can see Vivian Maier’s photographs and find out more about her on the website. Finding Vivian Maier is on general release now.

Read: On the Wild Side: 10 of the very best images from this year’s wildlife photography awards>

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