24th Jul 2015
Vivian Maier (1926-2009) was a professional nanny who, unbeknownst to those that knew her, used her spare time to scour the streets of Chicago and New York, using her trusty Rolleiflex, to shoot up to a whole roll of film each day. Unknown in her lifetime, she left an outstanding body of work composed of more than 100,000 negatives and undeveloped roll films. Her archive is represented in the United Kingdom by Huxley-Parlour gallery.
Staten Island, Ny, June 23, 1954
Untitled, March 31, 1957
Fall, New York, 1953
Self Portrait, 1971
Self-Portrait, Chicago Area, 1960
New York, Ny, 1954
New York, New York, Usa, 12 August 1954
Vivian Maier was born in New York on 1 February 1926 to a French mother, Maria Jaussaud and Austro-Hungarian father, Charles Maier. She spent her childhood in France, where she lived on her family’s farm ‘Bonne Regard’, overlooking the French Alps. Although Maier’s father left the family before her move to France, her time there was idyllic, the surroundings were beautiful and the other school children were in awe of her American heritage. Maier often returned to New York, where she and her mother shared a living space with award winning portrait photographer, Jeanne Bertrand.
Eventually, at the age of 25, Maier returned to live in the US. After working in a sweatshop in New York for five years, she moved to Chicago’s North Shore where she found a job working as a nanny for a number of middle class families. She cared for one particular family, the Ginsbergs, for 14 years. Her relationship with them was to be the closest she would ever experience to a family of her own. In the suburbs of Chicago, Maier had a comfortable life, living amongst a reasonably wealthy community in a quiet residential area. But when her work was finished, Maier would leave the suburbs, to venture to central Chicago or New York, and practice her most cherished pursuit, photography.
Life in America
Wandering the streets of New York’s dangerous Bowery, Maier would use her Rolleiflex twin lens camera to capture the lives of people in the city. Portraits of distinctive individuals, urban structures, children at play and regular self-portraits filled Maier’s waist-level viewfinder. Her pictures were shot from the hip, looking down into the camera, making no eye contact with the subject. This created a divide between photographer and subject, a barrier behind which Maier could work without interruption.
Maier was an avid picture maker; she would on average shoot a roll of film a day, giving just under 100 exposures a week. Despite this, she very rarely showed her work to anyone. Her handprints, made in the en-suite bathroom of her charge’s home, were kept secret. Those who saw her work the most were the developers working in the downtown printing labs where Maier would take bundles of film rolls every week. Occasionally, she would look through her pictures in the drug store, granting the staff the odd glance.
Maier continued like this for many years, amassing a huge archive of street photography. It was not just the streets of Chicago that caught her eye; Maier also went on a year-long trip around the world with her camera, funded by the sale of her deceased aunt’s house in France. The trip included visitations to Los Angeles, Manila, Bangkok, Beijing, Egypt, Italy, and the American Southwest, all of which Maier documented with her camera.
Around the late 1960s Maier was told by her longest standing clients, the Ginsberg family, that her services were no longer required as the children in her care had left for college. She was forced to move from the comfort of the Chicago suburbs and into the city, where property was cheaper. Continuing to work on and off as a nanny but with no where to store her now enormous collections of photographs, books, newspapers, cameras, videos and vintage clothing, Maier was forced to rent out expensive storage lockers, using the majority of her salary to retain her precious possessions. Ironically, this eventually led to periods of homelessness, and for a long time she claimed social security in order to buy rolls of film. As the years passed, her job roles became shorter and her hoarding and secretive behaviour more extreme.
Maier’s deteriorating situation, coupled with current political issues such as the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Nixon’s scandalous resignation, imposed new weight on her photography. Curious street walkers turned into homeless drug addicts, carefully composed architecture turned into burned down buildings and parades and picnics turned into riots. Snapshots of newspaper headlines became a key focus for Maier during this period, accompanied by mounds of clippings stored dutifully in her various lockers. At this point, Maier’s relationship with photography was at its purest. No prints were made, no films were developed, no praise received, and yet still the urge to take pictures remained. Maier needed to see the world through a camera, for her it was translation, what went in through the lens was a difficult and troublesome world, and what appeared in the viewfinder was visual poetry, a sensational language in which Maier was clearly fluent. As long as Maier was behind the camera, she was not living this life, merely documenting it.
As Maier aged, her reclusive characteristics were catalysed by the difficulties of living on the fringe of homelessness. Those who recall her at this time describe her as mysterious and antisocial, more akin to Boo Radley than Mary Poppins. Those who saw her camera presumed that it was part of some eccentric costume matched with old-fashioned clothing, usually a man’s coat and large black shoes. In many ways this unusual persona worked to Maier’s advantage. Despite appearing as an outcast, she was non-threatening. The largest challenge for street photographers to overcome is the subject’s own self-consciousness. Like a hunter’s prey, when confronted with the barrel of a lens, it is natural for people to become defensive and stiff, interfering with the natural chacteristics that the photographer seeks. When Maier pointed her camera, those who filled the frame would most likely presume that they were simply indulging the crackpot fantasies of a deranged old woman. They would never know that Maier was inviting them, to live on forever, in one of photography’s most important portfolios.
In 2007, Maier slipped on a patch of ice in downtown New York, hitting her head on the floor causing serious injury. She was admitted to hospital, where doctors were confident that she would make a full recovery. However, Maier refused treatment and her health began to deteriorate rapidly. At the same time, her financial difficulties peaked and, despite being financially aided by her previous clients the Ginsbergs, Maier’s debts finally caught up with her. Whilst in hospital, her storage lockers containing her most prized possessions, the archive of a lifetime of dedication to one medium, were sold to dealers to clear her dues.
In the same year that Maier died, Chicago based auctioneer Roger Gunderson came into possession of a number of storage lockers, filled to the brim with photographs, newspaper clippings, clothing and other bric-a-brac. Seeing the potential for a small profit, Gunderson quickly began auctioning off the contents to various collectors. What he didn’t know, was that this seemingly unimportant collection of belongings were in fact the pieces of a story that would change photographic history.
Two of the men present at the auction were Ron Slattery, a regular with a penchant for old amateur photographs, and Jon Maloof, a realtor sourcing material for a book project. Slattery was the first to successfully bid for some of the material. He acquired a box of around 2,000 small prints. Maloof went for negatives, 30,000 of them. Slattery was immediately satisfied; the pictures he had bought were beautiful and interesting. Maloof’s bid was blind, he had no idea what he had bought and it wasn’t until he returned home to scan the negatives that he saw their contents. What he found took his breath away.
Over the next two years, Maier’s life would become the obsession of three individuals. The first man to purchase her work at auction, Ron Slattery, would come to realize the potential value in his collection of old photographs and preserve them carefully so that they may appreciate over time. Chicago based artist and collector Jeffrey Goldstein, after catching wind of the developing situation, would go on an acquisition spree, often meeting in secluded spots, accompanied by armed accomplices, to deal in expensive Maier negatives. After taking the biggest personal interest in Maier’s life, Jon Maloof would make it his mission to meet one of history’s most fascinating and under appreciated photographers in the flesh. Of course Maloof’s first port of call was the Internet. However, a Google search in 2009 returned just one result, her obituary. Maloof was too late, Vivian Maier had died as a result of her head injuries, just months before.
To this day Jon Maloof has dedicated himself to exploring, archiving and promoting the life and work of Vivian Maier. Collecting and scanning negatives, setting up a website, producing a feature length documentary, a book and organising several exhibitions were all part of the process of gifting Vivian Maier to the world.