New York City, September 10, 1955 © VIVIAN MAIER. COURTESY OF HOWARD GREENBERG GALLERY

She washes the last of the breakfast dishes, gives the children a quick goodbye kiss on the cheek, slings her camera around her neck and heads out the door. It’s another overcast Saturday in a northern Chicago suburb as nanny and housekeeper Vivian Maier takes the train once again into the city.

Or so we imagine.

The only things we know for sure, so far, about this woman come from some of the children she took care of, in their recollections decades later; her brief obituary; and clues from possessions she left in delinquent storage lockers. Most memories and death notices eventually recede into obscurity. That could have happened with Maier’s storage locker contents, too, if not for a curious Chicago real estate agent. At a private auction in 2007, John Maloof took a chance on a cardboard box full of then-anonymous black and white negatives that he’d only quickly thumbed through (and almost didn’t bid on) before slapping down $400 for them.

In other hands, this find might have ended up in a Dumpster; instead, Vivian Maier’s images have deluged the international news, gone viral online and drawn throngs to galleries. The mastery of Maier’s photographs and the mystery surrounding her artistic motivations have won her world renown. This reserved, unconventional, independent and liberal woman has shifted the historical ground of street photography and shaken up an ethical controversy: what happens when someone’s private artistic expression hits the public eye posthumously, without that person’s consent?

In Chicago, New York and Paris, and in dozens of countries from the 1950s to the 1990s, Maier pointed her camera out the windows of buses and buildings, onto storefronts and from rooftops, down sidewalks and in traffic, through doorways and into mirrors, across farmers’ fields and mountain lakes. She rarely showed her photos to anyone, and never exhibited or published them.

Here’s a woman who kept her distance from others. Yet, “These pictures are very personal,” says photographer Rodger Kingston, a collector of vintage, vernacular photography in Belmont, Massachusetts. He continues:

They’re much like family photographs. She didn’t have a family, but it seems like she made the streets her family. She captured a certain intimacy in the small gestures, signs and scenes that you usually see only in photographs made in the structure of a tight community. She’s caught things you can only get if you’re out there often and for a long time, ready for them to happen. I think she has a powerful sense of humanity, and she puts it out there in a way that you can see beneath the surface to the real nature of the situation. She makes me care about the people in her pictures.

Vivian Maier, NewYork, 1955

New York, 1955 © VIVIAN MAIER. COURTESY OF THE JEFFREY GOLDSTEIN COLLECTION & JACKSON FINE ART—ATLANTA

On that day in 2007, Maloof bought between 30-40,000 of Maier’s negatives: street scenes, self-portraits, landscapes and urban landmarks. They now join over 50,000 more negatives that he has purchased from other collectors, 2,000 rolls of film, 3,000 prints and numerous color slides in what he has since named the Maloof Collection (www.vivianmaier.com), the largest repository of Maier’s work. Maloof also owns many of her possessions, including a half-dozen cameras, audio recordings, over 100 homemade films, art books, newspaper clippings she had saved and knickknacks. Several steamer trunks and boxes in his attic brim with Maier’s baggy overcoats, felt hats and the men’s shoes she wore.

More of this article can be read in the Summer 2012 issue.