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Chicago’s Vivian Maier took photos for decades, and it took nearly as long to discover her genius.

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Even though Vivian Maier’s photographs taken over several decades on the streets of Chicago only surfaced a few years ago, Richard Cahan considers it good timing. “In many ways, we have caught up to her,” he says. “I’m convinced she’s the first Instagram photographer, right down to the square medium format.” Fifty-five of Maier’s images will be on exhibit as part of Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows at the Mpls Photo Center beginning January 20.

Cahan, the co-author of a book about the prolific snapper who remained in obscurity until just a few years ago, says Maier’s subject matter and sensibility give her images an oddly contemporary feel. “Her pictures may not have been appreciated in her own time,” he says, but the mix of artistry and accessibility evident in her masterful compositions is attracting fans.

It’s easy to see why. They are portraits of everyday life, perfectly timed and expertly composed. “There’s a beauty to them and a universality to them,” says Cahan. “I think people really see their lives in her photos.”

Maier wasn’t part of any art scene. She spent a good part of her life as a nanny to wealthy Chicago families and was something of an oddball. “She was one of those people who was considered strange, even avoided by some. She had a strong personality, never talked about herself, and just wanted to know about the people around her,” says Cahan. “One person knew her for 12 years but never knew her name.” She left behind thousands and thousands of photo negatives, including a cache of self-portraits.

“I really like all of the work, but I like the self-portraits in particular because they are so evocative,” says the show’s curator and the director of the Mpls Photo Center, Orin Rutchick. The show features a selection of her sometimes quirky “selfies”—for instance, she liked to photograph her own shadow.

For someone so uninterested in the spotlight, the self-portraits aren’t out of character. “She was taking pictures to document her life,” Cahan says. Though she spent her life observing the world through her lens, Maier most definitely wanted to be part of the picture. Jan. 20–March 1. Mpls Photo Center, 2400 N. 2nd St., Mpls., 612-643-3511,