“I was talking with the gallerist Howard Greenberg in New York one day in October 2011 when he said he wanted to show me something new – a series of photographic prints produced by a woman I’d not heard of before and whose name I didn’t know how to pronounce properly.
I was immediately impressed by her strong visual style and ability to anticipate what the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called the ‘decisive moment’ in her street photography.
Even though the only thing known about her was that she had been a nanny, I knew this incredibly talented amateur deserved wider recognition.
Subsequently, I was given access to her archive of 120,000 pictures and hours of audio recordings and Super 8 films, which resulted in a show early in 2012.
The response from institutions in Europe was so strong that she soon became of a phenomenon. I’d never experienced anything like it; she was just an obscure woman but so many people seemed to see themselves represented in her work.
A decade later, we can say that our mission has been accomplished. Vivian Maier, who died in 2009, has taken her place among the greats in the history of photography.
I believe the key to her work was probably her position at the junction of two cultures. She was born in the US but spent some of her youth in France and, as a result, she was not just an American street photographer but also a French humanist photographer.
As a nanny, Maier lived in the house of a family and was totally at their service so, in the spirit of Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own, I believe that photography was the one place where she could be herself.
She also produced around 150 enigmatic self-portraits a year in which she appeared only in shadows and reflections. It’s as if she’s saying: ‘I’m here but you don’t need to see my face or know who I am’.
For me, this presence through absence is a truly beautiful thing and it was probably an act of resistance against society from someone who couldn’t live the American dream.
Maier had a strong understanding of popular visual culture, but she was an autodidact with the freedom of someone who had never been coached.
In this picture, for example, her shadow and reflection appear in the shiny object on the ground that is watering the grass. I think that’s a wink to art history and the way artists from the Netherlands in the 16th-century painted themselves into their pictures using reflections in mirrors and metallic objects.
I think many young people today experiencing a crisis of identity in this Instagram age could probably relate to these pictures.”
Interview by John Holt.
Vivian Maier: Anthology is at MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, until 25 September