Vivian Maier’s 1950s Self-Portraiture and the Invisibility of the Unmarried Woman

Written by Mary Thomas

Our staff has a wide variety of talents and interests, and we love when they intersect with the work we do here. For example, our social media expert, Mary, doubles as a history student at the University of Portland. When she was assigned to write a historical analysis on some form of media in relation to American women’s experience of the 1950s, Mary took the opportunity to look more closely at Vivian Maier, an under-researched photographer whose story is shrouded in mystery. Many of us know Maier’s work, as it was brought to the public eye by John Maloof in 2013 via his documentary Finding Vivian Maier. Maier’s lifetime and work have not yet been examined in-depth through a historical lens, considering their recent discovery. This paper scratches the surface of the woman photographer’s historical significance by specifically analyzing one of Maier’s many self-portraits and its contextual implications.

Self-portrait by Vivian Maier, October 1953

Self-portrait by Vivian Maier, October 1953

After World War II and through the 1950s, Americans prioritized and idealized the traditional notion of family and along with it, marriage and motherhood. Vivian Maier, born in 1926, faced the 50s as a young woman. Her photographic work, and her 1953 self-portrait in particular, is historically important in that it provides insight into her distinctive experience as a working-class woman with no husband, no children, and no higher education. Maier’s self-portrait demonstrates a rejection of gendered expectations and sheds light on the invisibility of the unmarried, childless woman and child care worker.

In the early 1940s, women made their mark in the workplace, but it was only “for the duration” of the war. Although many women continued to work after 1945, their more prominent role was in their homes.[1] In postwar society, a “normal” woman was expected to take her place in the home and find fulfillment through her husband and children.[2] Their eagerness was measurable; according to historian Susan Ware, in 1951, a third of all women were married by age 19.[3] Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, regarded as a transformative work that “ignited the women’s movement,” according to Stephanie Coontz’s in-depth critique of the work, gives us an extreme perspective of the sexist society.[4] Friedan writes that “no other road to fulfillment was offered to American women [besides that of a] housewife.”[5] She cites women’s only concerns to be “problems with their children, or how to keep their husbands happy, or improve their children’s school, or cook chicken or make slipcovers”; the women Friedan describes have no concern for “the unfeminine problems of the world outside the home” and their “only dream was to be perfect wives and mothers”.[6] Using this and other historical works, we can examine Vivian Maier’s self-portrait as a primary source itself and consider its place as a non-normative account which questions the feminine ideal.

One way that Vivian Maier’s photograph demonstrates autonomy and individualism that rejects the 1950s norms is in form – the fact that it is a self-portrait. Although self-portraiture has been understood in different ways, it is undeniably an important statement to be made by an artist. James Hall, in his cultural history of self-portraiture, writes that the medium “has become the defining visual genre of our confessional age,” and that “self-portraits give privileged access to the sitter’s soul…”[7] This level of introspection was not standard for a 1950s woman and certainly was not encouraged. Vivian Maier made her 1953 self-portrait at this time, when a woman’s “self” was often lost in her gendered roles, and that alone is significant. It is also worth noting the camera with which she created this photograph – a Rolleiflex that would’ve cost her around $200, or the equivalent of about $1800 today.[8]* Vivian Maier was not a wealthy woman; she worked as a nanny to support herself and later struggled even to make small payments for film and prints.[9]Purchasing the camera would’ve been a big deal for her, one that would have likely not been possible if she had a husband and children that she were working to help support, as many women did.[10] Her choice to acquire such a camera and, with it, make this image of herself reflects a strong sense of individualism.

Maier’s photograph further challenges the prevalent stereotypes by presenting only one woman besides herself in the portrait, drawing a contrast between her and the “normal” 1950s woman. Maier wears a strong, even androgynous, suit jacket as she looks herself in the mirror. Her hair is cut short, in the style of a man’s. Maier’s appearance is in stark contrast with the other woman’s long, methodically curled hair and pleated skirt. During the war, women were examining their place in the workplace and in other typically male-dominated spaces. However, the contrast Maier captures between herself and the woman behind her shows an examination of a different kind: that of a woman’s place among women. Maier was raised by a single mother and was more often surrounded by women than men in her youth;[11] because of this, she may not have struggled with the pressures of an overwhelming patriarchy as much or as directly as other women of her time. Instead, she saw the effects the patriarchy had on her female peers. Maier saw women, like the one in her photograph, wearing skirts and curling their hair, aligning with society’s feminine ideal, but chose not to conform.

The image also calls to question the very ideals Americans cherished at that point in time by alluding to Maier’s position as an unmarried, childless woman. She stands as the primary focus, filling the frame, almost perfectly centered. She stands alone, her only company being the stranger in the background whose head is turned away, oblivious to the photograph. She stood alone in life as well; she never married, never had children, and had no relationship with her family by the time she took the photo in 1953.[12] Maier would’ve seen the family-centered ideal all around her, especially working as a nanny, but she took no direct part in it.[13] Historian Rosalind Rosenberg notes that, in the 1947 best seller Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, “Marynia Farnham urged that women seek not to imitate men but to accept their femininity through subordination to their husbands and the joyful acceptance of motherhood.”[14]Rosenberg also writes that “according to one study, most Americans thought that single people were ‘either sick or immoral, too selfish or too neurotic.’”[15] This disdain for the unmarried and this expectation of motherhood reinforces the 1950s ideal and contributed weightily to Maier’s lack of visibility in her world.

Vivian Maier’s rejection of 1950s gendered stereotypes through her self-portrait and, ultimately, her life made her quite invisible in her society. While some of the women that rebelled against these traditional expectations were regarded as heroes in activism, Maier came incredibly close to being entirely forgotten, as many women were. In Anne Scott’s Making the Invisible Woman Visible, she writes about women’s lack of visibility considering an overshadowing patriarchal history. Scott tells about the publication of the biographical dictionary entitled Notable American Women, a project that began in 1957 after a reviewer of the Dictionary of American Biography“was shocked to discover that fewer than one-half of 1 percent of the characters therein were women.”[16] Maier’s position in history as a woman made her prone to invisibility, even before taking into account the other odds stacked against her because of her non-traditional status as a single, childless nanny.[17]

A testament of the extent to which Maier was overlooked as a woman and consequently as an artist is the recent rediscovery of her photographs. Upon being found in 2007 by John Maloof, Maier’s photographs have made a commendable impression on the art community; for reference, some of her vintage prints are priced at around $12,000 apiece.[18] It is curious to think that her photos went unnoticed until they came into the possession of a white man two years before her death, a discovery that led him to film Finding Vivian Maier, which has grossed more than $3.5 million.[19] One perspective Scott encourages we consider that might be applicable to Maier is “the tendency of some women to make themselves purposely invisible.”[20] While it could be simply their “passion for anonymity,” it is surely more illuminating to ask questions about the way that society shaped these women to be okay with being overlooked.[21]

Vivian Maier’s portrayal of her experiences through her self-portrait is an important lens with which to look at the 1950s and question the American ideals by means of a contemporary woman’s life. Although Maier may not have been an activist or a feminist leader, her artwork has begun to make a wide impression upon many, and analysis of the work makes clear its historical significance, providing insight on an otherwise invisible story.


[1] Rosalind Rosenberg, Divided Lives: American Women in the Twentieth Century, Revised Edition (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008), 148.

[2] Ibid., 153.

[3] Susan Ware, Modern American Women: A Documentary History, Second Edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 206.

[4] Stephanie Coontz, A Strange Stirring (New York: Basic Books, 2011), xv.

[5] Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton, 1963), 23.

Although helpful in describing 1950s women and their societal position, Friedan’s book was an opinionated and categorical one focused on a relatively small group of women, therefore we should be sure to find its historical value in that context as a primary source rather than take her words as indicative of the 1950s woman’s experience as a whole.

[6] Ibid., 16.

[7] James Hall, The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History (Thames & Hudson, 2016), 3.

[8] Pamela Bannos, Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

*Jim commented that this price estimation may be inaccurate, as he personally purchased a Rollei for $30. So, take Bannos’ research with a grain of salt.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ware, Modern American Women, 207.

[11] Bannos, Vivian Maier.

[12] Ibid.

[13] It is a curious detail to note that although Vivian Maier may have rejected the idealized family structure in direct practice, she also worked as a nanny for much of her adult life. Perhaps this was her way of fulfilling the societal pressure of motherhood, or perhaps this was the only way she could find work as a woman lacking in higher education. Likely, she enjoyed the benefits of living with the families that employed her and having plenty of free time to make photos much more than the drawbacks of working in a factory, which she did in the 1940s.

[14] Rosenberg, Divided Lives, 153.

[15] Ibid., 147.

[16] Anne F. Scott, Making the Invisible Woman Visible (University of Illinois Press, 1984), 149.

[17] Here it is important to recall the specific invisibility of childcare workers, especially in works like Friedan’s Feminine Mystique:

“Even a very young woman today must think of herself as a human being first, not as a mother with time on her hands, and make a life plan in terms of her own abilities, a commitment of her own to society, with which her commitments as wife and mother can be integrated.”

Friedan, and many other women fighting for individualism, failed to consider the women (like Maier) that would have to step in to help with childcare when white, middle-class mothers went looking to realize their abilities.

[18] Bannos, Vivian Maier.

[19] Ibid.

Maloof’s 2013 film consisted of very little historical analysis of Maier’s life, and instead focused on the 26-year-old man’s process of acquiring the photographers’ massive collection of negatives and his subsequent “investigation”. Pamela Bannos wrote her 2017 book in large part as a corrective study into the truth of Vivian Maier’s existence, hoping to overwrite the public depiction that the men in charge of the film and other projects “saved [the photographer] from oblivion”.

[20] Scott, Making the Invisible Woman Visible, 156.

[21] Ibid.