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Imagine buying a batch of anonymous negatives because you liked their views of old Chicago, only to discover the unpublished work of one of the 20th century’s greatest street photographers.


That’s what happened to John Maloof, a realtor and amateur historian who paid $400 for a box of 30,000 negatives at a thrift auction house on the city’s Northwest Side in 2007. The box contained roughly one-fourth of the extraordinary photography archive of Vivian Maier, an eccentric nanny who recorded — unflinchingly, stunningly — the people and cityscapes of Chicago and New York in the 1950s and 1960s.


See also: Share your favorite photos.


Bagel seller on the street with crowd, in New York, 9/29/1959.

Photographer Vivian Maier captures cityscapes of Chicago and New York in the 1950s and 1960s. — Photo by Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection, Ltd

Maloof’s find reverberated around the world largely because Maier was so ferociously talented and so scandalously unknown.


Born to a French mother and Hungarian father in New York in 1926, she grew up to become an intensely private, proud and opinionated woman, roaming the streets with her Rolleiflex and capturing unforgettable images that she shared with almost no one at all.


Her favorite subjects were everyday people in unguarded moments — older folks napping on a train, a man chasing blown papers down a street — and street scenes distinguished by a sort of glorious grit. She died in 2009 at the age of 83.


Because Maier’s photos portray midcentury America with such honest intensity, we’ve collected our favorites for your inspection in the slide show. Meanwhile John Maloof has been expanding his collection of Maier originals, scanning and archiving some 100,000 negatives and editing a book about her work, Vivian Maier: Street Photographer (powerHouse Books, November 2011). Exhibits of Vivian Maier’s photography have appeared in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Santa Fe, as well as in Norway, Denmark, Germany and England. A documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier, is also in the works.


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