Work Culture

Vivian Maier and the Instagram Era

There is no doubt that Instagram has fastly become the social network par excellence, or, at least, one of them. During these strange times, in which we have more free time than ever and it seems that days last forever, Instagram has turned into a lifeline for many people hungry for information and entertainment. And, although nowadays it seems impossible to imagine a world in which we cannot scroll for hours, there was a time - not so distant - when people lived in the most absolute privacy, and photographs were just a mere memory destined to live and die inside an album. However, in 2007, something happened that can, at least, be considered a miracle.

John Maloof, a 29-year-old young man embarking on a project to illustrate a book in his Images Of America series, purchased at an auction a box of negatives that, to his surprise, contained some images of outstanding quality. The author of these photographs was Vivian Dorothy Maier (New York, February 1st, 1926 - April 29th, 2009, Illinois), a New York nanny who spent years capturing life with her camera (a Kodak Brownie first , and, later, a Rolleiflex). These images posthumously placed her on the same level as photographers such as Diane Arbus or Robert Frank.

Her lack of financial resources did not allow her to reveal most of her photographs, so she never got to see much of her finished projects. Little did she know that her work today would be exhibited in some of the best museums and galleries all around the globe. And naturally, she would never have imagined that her self-portraits in mirrors and showcases (which make up an important part of her photographic corpus) would now be called selfies and be a worldwide phenomenon (yet, always with a certain halo of utopia and many, many filters). 

If Instagram stories are the absolute trend at the present time, Maier would have taken the cake...Not in vain she is considered one of the greatest exponents of Street Photography of the twentieth century. Her images of her surroundings and her overall life would hands down have delighted her followers, and most likely, the haters, who would undoubtedly have also emerged.

Not  much is known about the personal life of this artist, despite the overwhelming fame of her pictures. However, thanks to the testimonies of some of her acquaintances, we are aware of her obsession - almost sickly - to protect her privacy... With this in mind, what would she have thought of today's influencers?

Vivian Maier was a pioneer. Her large men's coats, hats and shirts reflected the personality of a strong woman, detached from the standards of that time. And, although perhaps she never intended it, it is very likely that, had she participated in the great wave of social networks, she would have become an icon. 

The Vivian Maier phenomenon is curious: she went from being unknown to becoming a recognized artist posthumously, thanks to her undeniable talent and, in large part, to the influence of the Internet. Once discovered, her images traveled the web at the speed of light, reaching people all over the word. At a time when the whirlwind of trends absorb us, Maier would certainly stand out from the crowd. And that only happens with the greatest masters. From her humble beginnings (and without her being able to witness her own success) Vivian has achieved what many others do not even dare to dream of. Her photographs occupy museum halls and inspire thousands of people. Thanks to her discovery, today we can enjoy her work. Of course, we do not know what her opinion would have been in this regard. Her obsession with preserving her privacy, ironically, would have contrasted with the worldwide fame that her figure enjoys today. To what extent is it ethical and correct to profit from the work of a person who never wanted it to see the light? Would Maier have changed her mind at the view of the international recognition that her photographs have received?

No one will ever be able to answer these questions. The figure of Vivian Maier was, is and will always be a mystery. Perhaps her work was always destined to be discovered, or perhaps not. Be that as it may, we can only appreciate with immense respect the work of this unique artist, learn from her and enjoy a legacy, to which, through games of chance, we now have access.

Berta U.

August 20, 2021

Give it a look