February 1, 1926– Vivian Maier:
”We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel. You get on. You go to the end. And someone else has the same opportunity to go to the end. And so on. And somebody else takes their place.”
Vivian Dorothy Maier was an unpretentious Chicago nanny with a passion for photography. The story of this remarkably talented woman who never showed her work to anyone while she was alive continues to haunt me. She was discovered only after a lifetime of shooting pictures. Now she is considered a master of street photography.
In her last few years, more than 100,000 of her photographs and negatives sat unseen in storage, along with most of her possessions. In 2007, after she was unable to keep up with the storage fees, they were sold at an auction. After she left this world in 2009, a collector who had bought one of the lots started putting her images online. She swiftly gathered a huge following.
Most details of Maier’s life are still unknown. She was born in NYC. Her mother was French, and she had Austrian father. Several times during her childhood she moved between the USA and France. Her father seems to have left the family around 1930. In the 1930 census, the head of the household was listed as Jeanne Bertrand, a successful photographer who was a friend of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Bertrand lived together with Maier and her mother in the 1930s. Her story is like Maier’s, she grew up poor and lost her father. Yet, by the 1930s, Bertrand worked at the Boston Globe, and she was considered one of the best photographers in New England. If Bertrand was an early influence on Maier, it should also be noted that Bertrand was a portrait photographer. Maier first picked up a camera in France about 1949. The photographs she took were controlled portraits and landscapes. It is very possible that Maier might have been taught by Bertrand.
In 1951, at 25-years-old, Maier moved from France back to NYC, where she worked a seamstress in a sweatshop. She moved to Chicago’s North Shore in 1956, where she worked as a nanny for the next 40 years. For her first 17 years in Chicago, Maier worked as a nanny for just two families: the Gensburgs from 1956 to 1972, and the Raymonds from 1967 to 1973. One of the Gensburgs later wrote that Maier never talked down to kids and was determined to show them the world outside their affluent suburb. The families that employed her described her as very private and reported that she spent her days off walking the streets of Chicago and taking photographs, usually with a Rolleiflex camera.
She learned English from films, which she loved. Plus, she was constantly taking pictures, which she never showed to anyone.
In 1960, Maier took a trip around the world all by herself, photographing scenes in Manila, Bangkok, Shanghai, Beijing, India, Syria, Egypt, and Italy. Maier’s photos betray an affinity for the poor, an emotional kinship she felt with those struggling to get by. Her thirst to be cultured led her around the globe. We know she continued to travel, visiting Canada, South America, the Middle East, Asia, and the Caribbean. She always traveled alone.
She kept her belongings at her employers’. She had at least 200 boxes of materials. Most were photographs or negatives, and tapes of conversations she had with the people she photographed. In the fantastic documentary film Finding Vivian Maier (2013), interviews with Maier’s former wards reveal that she presented herself to other people with various accents, names, life histories, and that her behavior with children could be inspiring and positive, but also unpredictable. She would frequently take the young children with her into the center of Chicago when she took her photographs. Occasionally they accompanied her to the rougher parts of Chicago, and, on one occasion, the stock yards.
The Gensburg boys, whom Maier had looked after as kids, tried to help her as she became poorer in old age. When she was about to be evicted from her apartment, they arranged for her to live in a better one in the old neighborhood. In November 2008, Maier fell on the ice and hit her head. She never recovered. In January 2009, she was transported to a nursing home in Highland Park, where she left this world 12 weeks later.
Two years before she died, Maier failed to keep up payments on storage space and her boxes were auctioned. Three photograph collectors bought her work: John Maloof, Ron Slattery and Randy Prow.
Maloof had bought the largest part of Maier’s work, about 30,000 negatives, because he was working on a book about the history of the Chicago. Maloof later purchased even more of Maier’s photographs from another buyer from the same auction. Maloof discovered Maier’s name in his boxes but was unable to discover anything about her until he did a Google search and found her death notice from the Chicago Tribune. Maloof downloaded some of his favorite Maier photographs on Flickr, and they went viral. Now, Maier’s photographs have received international attention in mainstream media, and have been shown in major gallery exhibitions, several books, and two documentary films.
In early 2010, Chicago art collector Jeffrey Goldstein acquired some of the Maier photos from Prow. He kept collecting and he eventually gathered 17,500 negatives, 2,000 prints, 30 homemade movies, and numerous slides. Maloof runs the Maloof Collection, and now represents about 90 percent of her known work. Maloof has donated thousands of vintage prints of Maier’s work to the University of Chicago who maintain an archive.
Maier’s most famous photographs show street scenes in Chicago and NYC during the 1950s and 1960s. Her most arresting pictures are of people on the margins: kids, black maids, blue collar workers, commuters, Bowery bums and the homeless. Most of her photographs are black and white, and many are casual shots of passers-by caught in transient moments.
Because Maier used a medium-format Rolleiflex her pictures have more detail than those of most street photographers using 35mm. There are also many self-portraits in her work, often photographing her own shadow, possibly as a way of being there and simultaneously not quite there.
Maier’s photographs are reminiscent of many famous 20th century photographers, including Weegee, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon. Yet, they are uniquely her own, with a distinctive element of calm, a clarity of composition.
Maier continued to work as a nanny and to document her life throughout the 1980s and 1990s. During this era, she shot using Ektachrome, placing tens of thousands of the color transparencies into yellow Kodak slide boxes.
Despite being close to the families of the kids in her care, Maier was an outsider. During the late 1960s, she photographed the light coming from the homes she passed. With not much money saved and no family of her own, she was determined to keep living independently. She loved the Gensburgs and kept up with the family, going to weddings, graduations, baby showers, but it was hard for her to ask for help. The Gensburgs bought her a cellphone, but she refused to use it. So, they just dropped by when they wanted to visit her.
When she was gone, the Gensburgs had Maier cremated and scattered her ashes in a forest where she had taken the boys 50 years earlier. They considered having a funeral but knew she would have hated it. They paid for that death notice in the Chicago Tribune:
”Vivian Maier, proud native of France and Chicago resident for the last 50 years died peacefully on Monday. A free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all who knew her.”
For the faithful Gensburgs, her story had come to an end. To the rest of us, it was only just beginning. She remains one of my very favorites photographers.
A show of photographs by Vivian Maier opens next week at the International Photography Hall of Fame in St. Louis.