The people that remember Maier – the Chicago families for whom she worked as a nanny in the 1950s and 1960s – recall a reclusive, eccentric individual, one who spoke in a thick French accent and wore a heavy overcoat and hat even in the height of summer. Her former charges often invoke Mary Poppins to describe her and Maloof calls her, "a really, really awesome person to hang out with if you were a kid. To be honest, I wish she had been my nanny. She would take kids on these wild adventures that only the coolest kids would think of doing."
They had no idea, though, that their nanny spent her days off taking some of the most extraordinary images of the 20th century. When Maier died in 2009 she left behind around 100,000 negatives that no one but she had ever seen. Now, the first exhibition of her work opened at the Chicago Cultural Centre in January and John Maloof is at work on a feature-length documentary about her life.
Many of her images are of people on the margins; she documented the poor, elderly and homeless of New York and Chicago, and certainly seems to have thought of herself as a fellow outsider. It's hard to imagine, then, this intensely private person welcoming the sort of exposure and excitement that her work is getting now. That's something that Maloof has agonised over.
"I hope she's OK with what I'm doing," he says. "She had no love life, no family and really had nobody that was close to her. The only thing that she had was the freedom of her camera to express herself and I think the reason she kept it secret is because it's all she had."
You can see her photographic work and learn more about Maier here:
There are many YouTube videos telling the story of Maier and showing some of her slides, beginning here:
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