How Vivian Maier, the Enigmatic Nanny Who Took 150,000 Photographs, Found Her Place in History

The late artist is getting her first full-scale exhibition in the United Kingdom this summer

Vivian Maier
A self-portrait of Vivian Maier from 1953 © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY

For decades, Vivian Maier wandered around New York and Chicago, surreptitiously taking tens of thousands of photographs of people and scenes she encountered on the street. But her photography prowess was unknown until 2007, two years before her death, when she fell behind on payments for a storage locker and the belongings inside were auctioned off.

More recently, Maier has slowly started gaining recognition for her work—and for her mysterious life. Now, her eclectic street-scene photographs are getting their first large-scale show in the United Kingdom.

Featuring more than 140 photographs, as well as audio and film clips, “Vivian Maier: Anthology” is on view now at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, a town some 55 miles northwest of London. The exhibition showcases Maier’s unique ability to capture everyday life—and infuse it with “wit, humor and (a) deep sense of humanity,” per the gallery.

Maier photographed burning furniture, electric cables, children, housewives, unhoused individuals, abandoned toys—and nearly everything in between, all with a skill that “far surpassed that of any part-time hobbyist,” the gallery notes.

Vivian Maier photographs a man on a horse
While working as a nanny, Vivian Maier photographed scenes from everyday life. © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY

The story of Maier’s rise to critical acclaim is just as compelling as her art. She worked as a professional nanny for more than 40 years, during which she secretly took more than 150,000 photographs. She often took the children she cared for on “shooting safaris,” which involved wandering around on the streets, often through poor neighborhoods, while wearing “funny, old-fashioned” clothes, reports the Guardian’s Adrian Searle.

Maier, secretive by nature, often holed up in the rooms her respective employers gave her inside their homes. When asked personal questions, she often gave different versions of her backstory and often changed the spelling of her name. Maier printed some of her own photographs and left many other rolls of film undeveloped, packing her work into suitcases and boxes, which she stashed in storage lockers.

In 2007, Chicago real estate agent John Maloof bought one of those lockers, fell in love with the photographs inside and began a lengthy quest to learn more about Maier. His 2013 documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, sparked intense interest in the previously unknown photographer and her work, launching her to posthumous fame. As Chloë Ashby writes for the Art Newspaper, Maier quickly became a “landmark figure in 20th-century American photography.”

Vivian Maier photographs a couple holding hands
Walking around New York City, Vivian Maier photographed people she saw on the street. © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy of Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY

The film also set off a complex legal battle over the control of her work and legacy. (Maier died in 2009 in a Chicago nursing home after slipping on ice.) In the end, a judge settled the case but sealed the details of the arrangement. According to Maloof’s lawyers, the agreement established a “cooperative structure that allows Maloof to continue to bring Maier’s extraordinary photography to light while preserving her legacy.” Other exhibitions of her work have since been held in Germany, France, Portugal, Sweden and elsewhere around the globe.

“I knew she was talented but it's astonishing what she made of it,” Linda Matthews, who had hired Maier to watch her three children in a Chicago suburb in the 1980s, told the Guardian’s Susanna Rustin in 2014. “Who could have imagined she could have left so much behind?"

Vivian Maier: Anthology” is on view at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, England, through September 25.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.