As little as five years ago, nobody knew the answer to that, and they had no reason to care. Now, however, Vivian Maier has become one of the most famous photographic discoveries of the 21st century after an enormous archive of her photo negatives started appearing shortly before her death, found by a real estate agent in Chicago, as Pamela Bannos noted in her lecture Thursday. Covering a wide variety of her works, Bannos noted the history of Maier’s career, taking at least 17,500 photos that we know of, along with various other works.
Yet the greatest question still remains unanswered; why did Maier never seek to make a career out of her quite extraordinary talent?
Maier is perhaps the first great mystery artist of the 21st century. Not since Henry Darger’s massive 35,000 page illustrated novel “In The Realms of the Unreal” (which, coincidentally, was also discovered in Chicago) has such a unique, major talent been discovered having a full creative life without anyone having any idea of its existence. People who knew Maier described her always as a shutterbug (a new documentary about her, “Finding Vivian Maier,” has just come out, and offers a full and compelling biography as well as a gorgeous selection of her work), but as for why she never submitted her work or advertised herself remains unknown.
There are, however, numerous theories. She could have been like Franz Kafka and never intended for her work to be seen, seeing it as a hobby or makeshift therapy. She might not have had the confidence. Or maybe she was waiting for someone to discover her work after she died; who knows? Since she died in 2009, we likely will never know.
What matters, really, is the work. Maier took hundreds of thousands of photos, of all aspects of life, with a focus on the poor, the outcast, and the different. In Maier’s work, we can see a world beyond our knowledge, a treasure never before breached, from an artist who will always make us contemplate our reality.
Who is Vivian Maier? A great artist, who left behind a powerful legacy.