Vivian Maier was an amateur photographer whose perceptive eye revealed her profound understanding of the human condition. Her artistry captured the hearts of aficionados and casual viewers alike when her images were discovered in 2007 in a storage locker auction.
Pedestrians on Clark Street (c. 1956-62) by Vivian MaierChicago History Museum
Maier's first known photographs are from around 1950, when Maier was about 24 years old and visiting some ancestral property in France. From that point on, Maier was rarely without her camera and she inadvertently used it to document her life by photographing the most poignant things she saw around her. Consistently employed as a nanny, Maier’s camera accompanied her on outings with her charges and on her days off.
The collection gifted to the Chicago History Museum spans from c. 1954 to 1974. The early portion of the collection includes scenes from New York where Maier lived before moving to Chicago in 1956. The remainder of the collection features scenes from Chicago, its suburbs, and Maier’s world travels in 1959.
Six children on a slide (c. 1957-62) by Vivian MaierChicago History Museum
Maier, working as a nanny, spent the greater part of her day, and indeed her life, with children. They appear frequently in her photographs—eating, sleeping, and most often playing.
Skaters in Central Park (1955) by Vivian MaierChicago History Museum
Born in New York City, Vivian Maier lived and worked in and around New York until she left for West Coast and eventually moved to Chicago in 1956. This gave her ample opportunity to perfectly frame “The Capital of the World,” as she did here with this charming ice skating scene from Central Park, dated March 19, 1955.
Shadow play with red bicycle (1974) by Vivian MaierChicago History Museum
Maier’s photographic prowess emerged while she lived in New York and came of age once she moved to Chicago. Her work depicts exceptional framing, a love of light and shadow play, and a genuine understanding of the human condition. Maier loved to photograph architecture, botanicals, mothers and their children, the elderly, newspapers, garbage cans, and herself in clever self-portraits. These recurring themes provide a rhythm for the over 150,000 photographs she took during her lifetime. Maier captured the ordinary in an extraordinary way.
An example of Maier’s play with light and shadow is this image of a bicycle, taken in suburban Chicago in October 1974. Maier’s shadow is also cleverly captured at the bottom of the frame.
Blooming roses reflected (1961) by Vivian MaierChicago History Museum
Maier’s penchant for light and shadow play and her appreciation of nature are whimsically combined in this image of roses, reflected in a garden gazing ball, taken in June 1961.
Michigan Avenue Bridge (c. 1957-64) by Vivian MaierChicago History Museum
The Chicago History Museum’s collection includes many of Maier’s predominant themes, but her photographs of buildings and the urban landscape are the most historically significant. Maier had an acuity for documenting Chicago’s architecture, but more than that, she had a sibylline propensity for photographing a Chicago that will never be again. She framed architectural masterpieces in her viewfinder as they fell under the wrecking ball and other buildings that have since been lost forever.
The Chicago that Maier met when she arrived in 1956 is depicted in this image of people standing on the Michigan Avenue Bridge (now the DuSable Bridge): women wore fit-and-flare dresses and men wore suits. The glazed terra-cotta of the landmark Wrigley Building (1924) is visible at the right edge of the frame. While the Wrigley still stands, the darker gray building at the center of the frame does not. The old Sun-Times newspaper headquarters, once located at 401 North Wabash Avenue, was brand new when Maier arrived in Chicago, but the modernist design did not make it beyond 2005, the year of its demolition.
Chicago Post Office (Federal Building) (1906) by William T. BarnumChicago History Museum
The old Chicago Federal Building (1898) once anchored the Chicago Loop, consuming the entire city block bounded by Dearborn Street, Adams Street, Clark Street, and Jackson Boulevard. The monumental beaux arts structure was demolished in 1965 to make way for the new, modern, sleek designs of the Second Chicago School. This image from the Chicago History Museum archives c. 1960 shows the full building as a point of comparison.
Central Standard Building with old Federal Building (c. 1956-65) by Vivian MaierChicago History Museum
Maier documented the old Chicago Federal Building from a distance, looking eastward on Jackson. The elegant Ionic colonnade on the left side of the frame belongs to the Illinois Standard Building. Maier would have taken this photograph sometime between her 1956 arrival in Chicago and the building’s 1965 demolition.
Old Chicago Federal building by Vivian MaierChicago History Museum
This overexposed image also features the old Chicago Federal Building, but the exposure gives a ghost-like appearance to a now incorporeal structure. Taken some time between Maier’s 1956 arrival in Chicago and the 1965 demolition of the building, the imperfect image is haunting.
Note: Rather than include only Maier’s most perfect photographs in this exhibit, we have elected to include a more comprehensive selection of Maier’s photography, including imperfect or flawed images, as seen here with this overexposure of the Old Federal Building. Such images, instead of detracting from Maier’s skill, enhance it, by portraying more of her creative processes. Furthermore, these photographic images, imperfect or otherwise, provide a priceless historic record for generations to come.
Chicago's Grand Central Station by Vivian MaierChicago History Museum
Maier photographed Chicago’s Grand Central Station (1890) and accompanying train shed from a high vantage point, ahead of its 1971 demolition. The station stands at Harrison, Wells, and Polk Streets along the Chicago River, and served the Wisconsin Central Railroad, the Chicago and Northern Pacific Railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the Soo Line Railroad, the Chicago Great Western Railway, and the Pere Marquette Railway during its nearly eight decades of active service. The Union Station Power House, visible in the background along the Chicago River, can still be seen to this day.
Chicago Stock Exchange Building (1907) by Barnes-Crosby CompanyChicago History Museum
In 1972, Vivian Maier was on site for the demolition of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building, the architectural masterpiece of Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. She documented the building as it fell under the wrecking ball. Here is a photograph from the archives of the building as a point of comparison.
Chicago Stock Exchange demolition (1972) by Vivian MaierChicago History Museum
Maier captured the building remnants. In the midst of a dramatic demolition process, the foundation of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building, as engineered by Dankmar Adler, is left exposed. It is a caisson foundation, which involved sinking a cylinder, reinforced with concrete, into Chicago’s bedrock to provide a solid pier to hold the steel columns of the building’s skeleton. The building was entirely supported by a steel frame and was enclosed by an early form of a curtain wall, made of fireproof terra-cotta.
Chicago Stock Exchange demolition with workman (1972) by Vivian MaierChicago History Museum
Here, a twisted I-beam stands vertically at the demolition site of the thirteen-story Chicago Stock Exchange Building. While the masterful Stock Exchange Building was demolished in 1972, the building visible across the street still stands. Formerly called the American National Bank Building, it is now known simply by its address: 33 North LaSalle Street.
Vivian Maier’s primary camera, a Rolleiflex, had its viewfinder on top, meaning it was held at waist height. This gave the photographer a certain anonymity, since the subject of the frame was likely unaware that his or her picture was being taken. Maier’s photography reflects this, as her subjects are often blissfully at ease but sometimes curiously surprised.
Chicago Stock Exchange building demoltion decorative remnants (1972) by Vivian MaierChicago History Museum
This image provides a poignant representation of what was lost with the demolition of the Stock Exchange Building. Here, in a heap of rubble lie remnants of Louis Sullivan’s terra-cotta ornamentation with his iconic foliate designs.
Illinois Central Railroad demolition framed by Gen. Logan (1974) by Vivian MaierChicago History Museum
Chicago was put on the map by railroads, but by the mid-twentieth century, ridership was on the decline, and the grand old railroad stations were becoming underutilized and too expensive to maintain. The year 1974 brought about the demise of the Illinois Central Station (1893), also called the 12th Street Station, located at 121 East Roosevelt Road on the southernmost end of Grant Park. Maier documented the wrecking ball in motion (see the left side of this image) framed by the equestrian statue of General Logan that stands on Michigan Avenue at Ninth Street.
12th Street Station by Mildred MeadChicago History Museum
As a comparison, this image pulled from the archives, shows the Station intact, circa 1951.
Illinois Central Railroad demolition (1974) by Vivian MaierChicago History Museum
A closer shot of the Illinois Central Station (1893) demolition in 1974 includes this abandoned taxi stand.
Chicago Picasso sculpture with Unity Building by Vivian MaierChicago History Museum
In a dissonant tableau of old and new, Vivian Maier photographs Chicago’s untitled Picasso statue in Daley Plaza, set against a background of the Unity Building (1891), which was demolished in 1989. The sixteen-story skyscraper was once the tallest building in Chicago. The Commonwealth-Edison Substation at 115 North Dearborn Street, the short building in the frame, remains tucked within the development known as Block 37 to this day.
Self-portrait in jewelry store window (1974) by Vivian MaierChicago History Museum
For over four decades Vivian Maier was an anonymous artist, shielded by her camera, rising to fame only posthumously. The most difficult aspect of interpreting Maier’s legacy is the simple fact that she had no active role in crafting it. Few of her photographs were ever developed during her lifetime, and even fewer were ever seen. She did not even see many of the pictures, except through her viewfinder in the split second before they were snapped. While friends and acquaintances attest to the fact that a camera was never far from her grasp, few, if any, recall seeing a print. She lives on as a silent partner, while her work is developed for public viewing and her expertise exposed. Like the creator of a time capsule, she has provided a collection of artifacts, but she remains forever the voiceless figure behind the camera.
Special thanks to the following individuals who made this Google Arts & Culture exhibit possible:
Peter T. Alter
Charles E. Bethea
Timothy Paton Jr.
The Estate of Vivian Maier
Processing of the Vivian Maier collection was generously supported by the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.
All images by Vivian Maier | © The Estate of Vivian Maier