Photographs reveal clues to reclusive photographer

Vivian Maier in a self-portrait.
Vivian Maier in a self-portrait.

Look closely. Focus. Peek into a world that exists for only one woman. It lives at the end of her gaze, through a lens.

A shutter snaps. A moment that was meant to be lost forever now lives forever.

For years, this world was tucked away in a group of storage lockers in Chicago, never meant to see the light of day.

Then one day it surfaces. For the first time, this woman intentionally living a life in the shadows, purposefully moving through the world unnoticed, is truly seen.

For 83 years, Vivian Maier saw her world through a lens, bringing the precious, the rough, the overlooked, into focus.

Maier spent a lifetime taking photographs, 150,000 to be exact. And she never showed a soul.

It wasn’t until after Maier’s death in 2009 that collectors at a Chicago auction discovered one of the greatest street photographers to ever live. Her work all done before the style had even truly been invented.

Who was this woman? Where did she come from? The film “The Vivian Maier Mystery” uncovers the story behind the woman, behind the camera.

“It’s an amazing fateful story,” executive producer Jeff Kurz said. “It’s fate that her work came to life when it did. Her photos almost shouldn’t exist.”

A screening of the film, sponsored by the Woodstock Fine Arts Association, will be held May 31 at the Woodstock Opera House. A question-and-answer session with Kurz and collector Jeffrey Goldstein will follow.

What little is known of Maier has been told by the few who actually knew her, though they did not know her well. A recluse and a nanny by trade, Maier was born in 1926 in New York City, where the tale begins.

“It’s different for everyone,” Kurz said. “Some are drawn to her story. I was drawn to her photography.”

Off to live in France at age 6, back to New York at 12 and finally off to Chicago to spend the remainder of her life, the details are few. However, upon the discovery of her negatives, one can piece together a day in her life by the stories and timelines her photographs reveal.

Completely self-taught, Maier roamed the streets armed with her spyglass of choice, a Rolleiflex camera hung carefully around her neck, seeking that perfect moment.

“She was a savant,” Kurz said. “She had an instinctual knack and could assess these situations to achieve perfect composition.”

She has been described as a poet of suburbia, Mary Poppins and an “odd bird.” But one fact remained, she was always seen with her camera.

Maier led a solitary life. She never married, never had children and did not have any close friends. Even the families who employed her never truly knew her. In part, that’s how Maier preferred it.

“The film is a mystery, a detective story,” Kurz said. “We wanted to give the viewers a comprehensive look into her life using the pieces of the puzzle that we had access to. But some pieces will always be missing.”

Maier’s work was truly her own, not looking to please any type of audience. Her story may never truly be told, but her photographs have a story all their own.

Look closely. Focus. See the world through the frame of a modern master.

See the world as Vivian Maier thought it should be, held tight, at the far end of a lens.

Loading more

Digital Access

Digital Access
Access from all your digital devices and receive breaking news and updates from around the area.

Home Delivery

Home Delivery
Local news, prep sports, Chicago sports, local and regional entertainment, business, home and lifestyle, food, classified and more! News you use every day! Daily, weekend and Sunday packages.

Text Alerts

Text Alerts
Stay connected to us wherever you are! Get breaking news updates along with other area information sent to you as a text message to your wireless device.

Email Newsletters

Email Newsletters
We'll deliver news & updates to your inbox. Plan your weekend and catch up on the news with our newsletters.