vivian maier: in color

Vivian Maier–you may have heard of her. She was an eccentric, self-taught photographer who generated a massive body of work–more than 150,000 photos taken over a span of 40+ years–but didn’t share or exhibit it. She also happened to be a nanny by day for North Shore families, starting in the 1950s.

Maier was notoriously private. She never married and had few friends. But she had cameras, film, and a burning compulsion to document the world around her. Maier roamed Chicago streets, photographing everyday people, scenes, and objects.

She is best known for her black-and-white photography, which she often captured with a Rolleiflex camera, as shown here.

With a Rolleiflex, the camera operator looks down into a viewfinder to find and frame subjects. With a Rolleiflex slung around her neck and resting near her waist, Maier didn’t look at her subjects directly. You might imagine that she photographed many of her subjects without them knowing, which aligns with how Maier described herself to others–a mystery woman and spy.

That must’ve changed when Maier started taking color photos with a Leica IIIc, which has a rangefinder. A rangefinder requires the camera operator to adjust a focus ring (see below) and engage subjects more directly than with the Rolleiflex viewfinder.

With her color photos, you sense Maier’s increased confidence and interest in experimenting with focus, exposure, and framing.

The “Vivian Maier: In Color” exhibit–a collection of 65 color photos–is open through May 2023 at the Chicago History Museum, and general admission is $19.