Woman Wanderer: Vivian Maier, street photographer
Welcome to the third in my Women Wanderers series! After realizing I didn't know enough women I wanted to be like when I grow up, I decided to begin searching for badass babes who've explored the world and left their mark in the realm of travel. Catch up on the series backstory here, and read about previous Woman Wanderers Sylvia Earle and Nellie Bly.
The story of Vivian Maier begins with an accidental discovery decades after her quiet, forgotten death: A young man happens upon her estate at an auction, hoping to luck out and find some valuables in the boxes and boxes she hoarded.
He doesn’t find an antique, a first edition classic novel or an original painting by one of the greats. At first, it feels like he paid for junk.
Then, he discovers her negatives.
There was, it seems, two Vivian Maiers. There was the tall, sombre woman who worked as a nanny, confusing people with a vague French accent and a tendency for hoarding newspapers.
Yet, in her scant hours off, she was someone else all together: A street photographer whose unobtrusive yet direct style captured moments that defined her time.
[Above: Examples of Maier's street photography in Chicago and New York, via Pintrest. Top: Maier was also known for her extensive self portraits. Image via pintrest.]
Not since Robert Frank had there been photos so everyday, yet so beautiful.
Wealthy women adjusting themselves as they climbed out of limos, young girls with ice cream on street corners, dock workers unloading pallets, drunks passed out in alleyways: All seemed to find a symmetry, a space between spontaneity and poise, in her images.
John Maloof, the young man who bid on the boxes, knows he’s happened on something magical. He begins searching for who this woman was, and in the process, creates the documentary Finding Vivian Maier.
The film isn’t without it’s problems. The wealthy families Maier nannied for can’t seem to believe she was really an artist, and Maloof never seems to challenge them on this fact. An acquaintance of Maier’s challenges if she was even French, despite Maloof tracking down her mother’s immigration papers from France. Some of the children she nannied, now adults, also level heavy accusations against her caregiving style.
But, the chance to follow the mystery of who this woman was, the opportunity to see so much of her work, makes it worth adding to your Netflix queue.
Ok, ok. I know what you’re thinking: This is all nice and interesting, Morgan, but what’s your point? What makes her fit in the Women Wanderers series?
Well, there’s two reasons. First of all, someone who manages to explore every day, to find something new and beautiful in their own city, as Maier did while wandering the streets of Chicago, is an explorer in the truest sense of the word. Not all of us can afford to take off and backpack through Asia or traipse around Europe. Maier is a shining example of how to embody the spirit of travel when you can’t go somewhere new.
But don’t think this meant she was undedicated to seeing the world. For even hanging on the the ragged edge of the poverty line, even being an unmarried woman in the last days of the spinster era, Maier scraped together the funds to see snippets of South America, the Middle East, Asia and the Caribbean.
[Above: Portraits shot by Maier in Thailand and Vietnam, via Pintrest.]
A woman travelling alone today causes others to comment on one’s bravery. In 1959 it bordered on unthinkable. Still, she did it—and brought her trusty SLR along for rolls and rolls of tender, pulsing portraits.
In the film, Maloof estimates she was in the Andes for only a couple weeks. Still, the amount she saw—and shot—while there shows she made the most of every moment.
Her other voyages have been discussed in articles published after the film’s release, meaning we know even less about them than the little we do about her time in South America.
She may be the most relatable on my list because she knew the woes of vacation time and budgetary restraints. She didn’t find a new corner on the map or uproot human knowledge.
But what really matters is this: She went. She saw. She watched the world, no matter where she was in it.
Vivan Maier takes her place amongst the ranks of female explorers, of Women Wanderers, because she let nothing stand between her and her desire to see the world. She had the heart of an explorer, and kept the true spirit of travel alive no matter where she was.