finding vivian maier

The other day, I stole some time and took myself to see Finding Vivian Maier, a now-playing documentary about a stunningly talented street photographer whose body of work was discovered at an auction near the end of her life, when she had no money to pay storage fees for her lifetime of work, although she died not knowing she’d been discovered.

I smuggled a drink into the theater and splurged on popcorn. The place was nearly empty but I sat near the front so I get my nosy nose right up into thevivian mystery woman screen and I sat there in the dark with my pupils wide and gulping, gulping. Every one of her photographs made me feel like I was seeing an iconic image for the first time.  How come I never heard of Vivian Maier before?

We’ve all heard of tremendously talented artists who live and die without money or fame. This happens every day and although those stories are important, the surprising part of Vivian Maier’s story, apart from her stupendous talent, is not that the fact that she’d been overlooked but that no one knew her— literally no one knew literally nothing. Vivian Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) had no real friends, no family, and not even her employers, the families who hired her as a live-in nanny for their children, knew much about her. She was more reclusive than Emily Dickenson and as much of an outsider as artist Henry Darger. Like them, Vivian Maier’s lack of recognition was so utter and so profound that it had to have been intentional.

In an age when it seems as though everyone (and their grandma, and their dog) wants to be famous, Vivian Maier is an anomaly. Today,rolliflex countless talentless hacks move mountains to be seen and admired. But the masterful Vivian Maier didn’t play that way. She wasn’t longing to be discovered: she wanted to hide behind her camera and actively (cleverly, boldly, rudely, maliciously) thwarted every opportunity for recognition and intimacy.

Here is a woman who wants nothing but a camera and herself. Why did she live this way? What was her motivation for hiding herself and her talent? The closest one can come to understanding is by looking at her self portraits because although all her photographs convey an ironic intimacy and an unblinking appreciation of humanity’s flaws and failings, it’s her self portraits that reveal how she pictured herself. She’s the only person who knew Vivian Maier and those self portraits, taken by her and for her eyes only, confer at least some degree of intimacy.

For such a staunchly invisible person, Vivian Maier sure took a lot of selfies.  Here are some that I found particularly compelling:


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I sit in the theater alone observing this monolithic woman whose life was simultaneously empty and full, and I am overwhelmed. It disturbs, amuses, and thrills me that a person can be so focussed and so, so unseen.

Looking at her work, I understand the allure anonymity, of intimacy with strangers, fleeting insight, and seeing oneself from the outside as a small but integral part of a larger picture.  I see that art needs nobody but an artist to make it good. I feel the terror of being alone with oneself, alone to wrestle inner monsters.

Because more than anything else, Vivian Maier knew that in this life, we have only ourselves.

Take a look and tell me what you think.

Click here to see more.

About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.


  1. joplingirl

    A tribe of one. That singular eye finding a self in the world around her. Not untrained or naive. Knowing. I am so moved and reminded that for all our talent the truest gift of all is what we leave behind.

  2. I have the sense that perhaps she never really existed… just a specter moving in the shadows…with a camera…?!! How could one live a life completely unknown by anyone? Baffling mystery.

  3. Thanks for the beautiful, righteous introduction. I am excited, off to discover!

  4. The photos are wonderful, amazing.
    I’m afraid to look far into all this, because if I do, then find it’s yet another case of people who’ve used the work of some brilliant and talented person, to make themselves rich after she died, by doing something she wouldn’t have wanted, then I’m going to fall down a slippery slope — and I need to stay away from that slope, and keep writing.
    Damn, I think too much. Why can’t I just look at the photos and enjoy them for what they are?

    • Yes. I carefully avoided any talk about how she should be famous or she should be in museums. I leave all that to the vultures and hyenas. And still, I am grateful that I got to see this and hope that she is not harmed by my seeing.

      • I get the feeling she’d be happy to have your respect, and that of anyone else who has an “Art for art’s sake” sensibility.
        And she probably should be famous, and her work in museums, and I think that would be cool, and make a statement that her work was good because she focused on her work, not on being famous and rich.
        There’s so much absolute shit being produced, Product in the name of art, and her work is crisp and refreshing and real, and I’m so glad you found it.

        • I wonder what she thought. I so wish we all had a chance to hear what she thought about it all, to hear her reasons. But really, this story is much better (and more realistic). xoox

  5. So interesting. You sum it up perfectly when you mention the allure of becoming anonymous. Sounds idyllic, and I personally love an afternoon alone in a big city and the liberating anonymity that brings, but I could never make it a vocation. That would take some commitment. A nun of sorts!

  6. What a fascinating story. I wonder if I heard about the discovery of her body of work when she died. I seem to remember something like that hit the news a few years ago. What an enigma. Did the documentary uncover anything about her childhood or background?

    • I won’t spoil the film but I’ll say they interview many people in the film, and travel abroad to find her, but it still adds up to squat. They found the stuff before she died but did not find her until it was too late. She’d hidden herself that well.

  7. She seems to be an artist who created her art separate from the demands of the bourgeois establishment. I can’t decide whether the placement of herself (or her shadow) in so many pictures indicates a desire to be part of the rendered scene, or to only comment on it. Either way, her work is fascinating.

    • I imagine that sometimes she just found herself in the scene while other times, she sought herself out. Just like in writing, when we shift from first to third person. The artist/author is there in every frame/word whether she wants to be or not, so why bother pretending?

  8. For those who so choose, the camera becomes wall or mirror or both. Through the looking glass the viewfinder engages the world; the photographer engages the camera.

  9. I have so much to say to say about this subject, and so little time . . . you already know how intrigued I am by our Miss Vivian. Today is Mother’s Day (Happy Mother’s Day to you!) and I have found a theater that is showing this film this afternoon.

    I’ll be back momentarily.

  10. Wow. That’s something. And to take selfies like that, where you’re no less or more important than the scenery that surrounds…She’s almost an apparition – you really have to look in some of those to find her, which maybe says something of how she saw her place in the world? I’d love to see this. (And Happy Mother’s Day…belated). xo

  11. CurvyElvie aka Elvira Jorge

    I found her self portraits to be kind of disturbing and beautiful at the same time. I think you honored her with you review.

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