New book shares Vivian Maier's story

The more you learn about Vivian Maier, the more you want to know.

Her story is a bit bizarre, one of an obscure Chicago nanny who kept to herself as she roamed the city with a camera. A couple years before her death in 2009, thousands of her images were discovered in an abandoned storage locker.

Those images have captured worldwide acclaim.

As much as they each tell a story, so does the life Maier led.

It's a story about the power of photography and the value of each individual, said Richard Cahan, co-author of "Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows."

He and co-author Michael Williams sought to tell Maier's story for years.

"I instantly, like many other people around the world, just became intrigued," said Cahan, a photojournalist and editor who first learned about Maier in 2009 after the contents of her storage locker had been auctioned, the images discovered and shown on one of the first websites featuring her work.

Cahan and Williams sought to do more than offer simply a portfolio of Maier's work through the years.

"We always ask, 'What do these pictures mean?'" Cahan said. "We view pictures as kind of the building blocks of a movie or a story. We spent about a year really tracking down everything we could find out about Vivian."

A nanny on Chicago's North Shore in the 1960s and '70s, Maier was born in New York City but spent most of her childhood in France before returning to the United States.

Living in squalor toward the end of her life, possibly homeless for a time, her more than 100,000 abandoned negatives were auctioned for pennies.

At the end of her life, the children she had nannied paid for an apartment for her and took care of her. The contents of her storage locker were auctioned unbeknownst to them due to delinquent payments.

Maier often hid her photos from the eyes of others throughout her life. Upon discovery, the images have been displayed at museums, including "Vivian Maier's Chicago" at the Chicago History Museum, and are now being archived and catalogued.

"For those who have never seen the work, I think they will be engaged with Vivian's life story, and they'll be thrilled with the aesthetic beauty of the pictures," Cahan said. "For people who know the story, I think there's this moment that people just find it hard to believe one person could have taken so many beautiful photographs."

Her images depict the children she cared for, historic landmarks and cherished sites in Chicago as well as random people, often destitute.

They range from leaves on a street to a mother pushing a baby in a stroller to a man jumping over a puddle.

"We've seen all of her pictures before in our lives," Cahan said. "Most photography that we see are pictures taken by people who have access to things we don't have every day, sitting in a dugout of a Cubs game or at Cape Canaveral. ... Vivian didn't have a press pass. She took the bus and she took the train and walked around her neighborhood. We've seen all this stuff before, but whoever would have thought about taking a camera and photographing it.

"Now a lot of us are doing that with Instagram pictures. She was really 40 years ahead of her time."

Although she lived a rather clandestine life, she somehow connected with the people in her images, even if only for the minutes it took to take their pictures, Cahan said.

In researching Maier and creating the book, Cahan said he became even more inspired to appreciate the richness of life.

He and Williams are working on a follow-up book about Maier, likely titled "Eye to Eye," and focusing more on the photographs she took of subjects looking directly at her.

"Ultimately, I think one of the messages I hope to have come across is that we live in a world where many people are somewhat outsiders. They live in the fringes," Cahan said. "We don't take our time to talk to them or understand them or appreciate them. I think that's one of the most interesting things about Vivian.

"I keep thinking about her. Everyone has a tremendous net worth, and we don't have time to get to know people. There are hundreds of Vivians out there, maybe not photographers, but as people they have a lot to tell us," he said.