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The Vivian Maier mystery on show in Rome: lifelong nanny to posthumous iconic photographer

by Andrea Carli

She is unknown to most. Yet Vivian Maier is currently considered an icon of street photography, and the protagonist of an exhibition that's just been inaugurated at Museo di Roma in Trastevere.

A native of New York, she worked as a housekeeper and nanny from the 1950s onwards: a caregiver by profession yet a photographer by vocation, Vivian was never without her Rolleiflex camera, compulsively taking pictures whenever she left the house.

It was 2007 when John Maloof, a real estate agent at the time, purchased part of the Maier archives at an auction, after they were confiscated for failed payment of storage. He straightaway realized the quality of his find and from that moment on, has never stopped looking for material concerning this mysterious photographer, eventually amassing a treasure trove of over 150,000 negatives and 3,000 prints [ – as well as co-directing a 2013 documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2015.]

The Roman show exhibits 120 black-and-white photographs Maier took in the 1950s and 1960s, together with a selection of color photos from the 1970s and several Super 8 films that show how Maier approached her subjects.

A commanding yet discreet and private figure, assertive and uncompromising, Vivian Maier portrayed the cities she lived in – New York and Chicago – with a keen and curious eye, an attention to detail and imperfections, to children and elderly people, to the poignant transience of urban life in the street, amidst the faces and gestures of the city's population at a time of vibrant social and cultural change. Powerful pictures, whose arresting beauty reveal a great photographer.

Her black-and-white shots capture a myriad Americana and mirror US society in its everyday, post-World War II life.

Her photographs were never exhibited or published while she was alive, and most of her film rolls were never even developed: Vivian Maier appeared to photograph for herself.

In perusing her corpus of work, one is struck by the presence of many self-portraits, almost a possible legacy to a public she either never wished or could have anything to do with. Her stern, detached gaze, reflected in shop windows, puddles or mirrors, her long shadow stretched out over the subject of her photograph, form a bridge between us and this enigmatic artist.

(“Vivian Maier. A Photographer Discovered.” Museo di Roma in Trastevere, Rome, until June 18)