Street photographer Vivian Maier emerges from obscurity

The late, professional nanny kept her body of work hidden in a storage unit

When Vivian Maier passed away in 2009, the Chicago Tribune ran a short death notice that read, in part:

"Vivian Maier, proud native of France and Chicago resident for the last 50 years died peacefully on Monday. Second mother to John, Lane and Matthew. A free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all who knew her. Always ready to give her advice, opinion or a helping hand. Movie critic and photographer extraordinaire. A truly special person who will be sorely missed ... ."

In a way, that sums up Maier's quiet life. A professional nanny for her entire working life, Maier never married or had children. In her later years, some of the children she had looked after bought her an apartment where she lived alone. The passing reference to her interest in photography is a footnote, given the same weight as her opinionated taste in film.

What no one could have known then is that less than three years later, the New York Times would run a review nominating "a new candidate for the pantheon of great 20th-century street photographers: Vivian Maier" and the New Yorker would call her best work "confident, arresting, and strong enough to stand up to comparisons to Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, and Diane Arbus."

What her charges knew as an incessant habit of keeping a Rolleiflex close at hand turned out to be something much larger. By the end of her life, Maier had amassed a body of work numbering more than 100,000 negatives. Kept in a storage unit, her photographs weren't just unseen by the public, they were largely unseen by her. She had boxes of undeveloped rolls and just a few thousand prints in storage. That anonymity might still be the case if she hadn't stopped payments on the storage unit near the end of her life.

The discovery of Maier as an artist came about after a blind storage unit auction like those glorified on television's "Storage Wars." The ensuing events of tracking down her identity, realizing the breadth of her work, and discovering the details of her life are a circuitous and complicated story. (A documentary is forthcoming later this year.) However sketchy our understanding of her life may be, the quality of her work is as clear as the focus of her photographs.

Maier's current exhibition at Jackson Fine Art is small, maybe 30 prints from the '50s and '60s, but it is a fine introduction to her work. A photo from Chicago in the early '60s shows an older woman at a street corner wrapped in fur, holding her hat from the wind. Her eyes, askance, look directly into the lens in a moment of unguarded intimacy. The time and place is immediately recognizable, she is caught in the changing momentum of the 20th century as much as the wind.

Children show up in a number of the prints — racing past suburban lawns, leaning out of automobiles into the sun, hanging out outside of a theater. Maier has an ability to put her subjects at ease, to see adolescents in their vitality.

Still, her self-portraits are the most compelling. Perhaps that owes to her mysterious past, but her constant observation of self in mirrors and storefront windows is magnetic. In her stoic gaze, her short hair, and her prim clothes, she becomes like a 20th-century Emily Dickinson, an artist content to create for and from herself. How lucky we should feel to get a glimpse.