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Chicago Photographer Who Died In Obscurity Now Acclaimed As A Genius

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A self-portrait of Vivian Maier, an acclaimed photographer who was unknown in her lifetime. (VivianMaier.com/John Maloof)

A self-portrait of Vivian Maier, an acclaimed photographer who was unknown in her lifetime. (VivianMaier.com/John Maloof)

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CHICAGO (CBS) — She never married, she didn’t have family or friends, and she died poor. But today, her photographs are celebrated around the world.

CBS 2’s Jim Williams tells us how it happened.

At the Chicago Cultural Center, there is an exhibit fit for an artist of extraordinary talent.

“It’s important for Chicagoans to see,” curator Lanny Silverman says.

But it’s not just for Chicagoans. People are coming from all over to see the photographs of Vivian Maier.

“It was one of my ‘have to come to’ stops,” visitor Lynn Lee says. “I saw it online first, and I just find it fabulous.”

The same can be said of Maier’s story, according to Chicago artist Jeff Goldstein.

Maier worked as a nanny and, simply for her own pleasure, took photographs on the street, mainly in Chicago, from the 1950s to the 1990s.

“She apparently had no friends, no tight relationships,” Goldstein said. “A total loner.”

Maier died in obscurity two years ago at 83, her work unpublished and unknown. A man named John Maloof stumbled upon a box of undeveloped film at a Chicago auction house and bought it without knowing what a treasure trove he had.

Maloof eventually put one Vivian Maier photo online, and a worldwide sensation was born.

“Initially, people thought it was a hoax, because of the volume of work, the quality of the work,” Goldstein said.

It was no hoax.

Goldstein, now one of the shepherds of Maier’s work, says it is brilliant.

“The formal elements that you see in any arts — whether it’s painting, sculpture, photography — she really hit home runs,” he says.

Maier demonstrates that sometimes a hidden talent just needs a little light.

“You never know who may inspire you,” Goldstein says.

Maier took hundreds of thousands of photographs. One third of them have never even been developed.

Her supporters are working on them now. A large sampling of her work is at VivianMaier.com.

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