It is so inspiring to see that someone have found a way to say his story, to show his world.
Vivian Dorothy Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) was an American street photographer. Maier worked for about forty years as a nanny, mostly in Chicago’s North Shore, pursuing photography during her spare time. She took more than 150,000 photographs during her lifetime, primarily of the people and architecture of New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, although she also traveled and photographed worldwide.
During her lifetime, Maier’s photographs were unknown and unpublished, and she never printed many of her negatives. A Chicago collector, John Maloof, acquired some of Maier’s photos in 2007, while two other Chicago-based collectors, Ron Slattery and Randy Prow, also found some of Maier’s prints and negatives in her boxes and suitcases around the same time. Maier’s photographs were first published on the Internet in July 2008, by Slattery, but the work received little response. In October 2009, Maloof linked his blog to a selection of Maier’s photographs on the image-sharing website Flickr, and the results went “viral”, with thousands of people expressing interest. Critical acclaim and interest in Maier’s work quickly followed, and since then, Maier’s photographs have been exhibited in North America, Europe, Asia and South America while her life and work have been the subject of books and documentary films.
Many details of Maier’s life remain unknown. She was born in New York City, the daughter of a French mother, Maria Jaussaud Justin, and an Austrian father, Charles Maier (also known as Wilhelm). Several times during her childhood she moved between the U.S. and France, living with her mother in the Alpine village of Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur near her mother’s relations. Her father seems to have left the family temporarily for unknown reasons by 1930. In the 1930 census, the head of the household was listed as Jeanne Bertrand, a successful photographer who knew Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
In 1935, Vivian and her mother, Maria, were living in Saint-Julien-en-Champsaur and before 1940 returned to New York. Her father and brother Charles stayed in New York. The family of Charles, Maria, Vivian and Charles were living in New York in 1940, where her father worked as a steam engineer.
In 1951, aged 25, Maier moved from France to New York, where she worked in a sweatshop. She moved to the Chicago area’s North Shore in 1956, where she worked primarily as a nanny and carer for the next 40 years. For her first 17 years in Chicago, Maier worked as a nanny for two families: the Gensburgs from 1956 to 1972, and the Raymonds from 1967 to 1973. Lane Gensburg later said of Maier, “She was like a real, live Mary Poppins,” and said she 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.
John Maloof, curator of some of Maier’s photographs, summarized the way the children she nannied would later describe her:
“She was a Socialist, a Feminist, a movie critic, and a tell-it-like-it-is type of person. She learned English by going to theaters, which she loved. … She was constantly taking pictures, which she didn’t show anyone.”
In 1959 and 1960, Maier took a trip around the world on her own, photographing Los Angeles, Manila, Bangkok, Shanghai, Beijing, India, Syria, Egypt, and Italy. The trip was probably financed by the sale of a family farm in Saint-Julien-en-Champsaur. For a brief period in the 1970s, Maier worked as a nanny for Phil Donahue’s children. She kept her belongings at her employers’; at one, she had 200 boxes of materials. Most were photographs or negatives, but Maier also collected newspapers, in at least one instance, “shoulder-high piles,” and sometimes recorded audiotapes of conversations she had with people she photographed. In the documentary film Finding Vivian Maier (2013), interviews with Maier’s employers and their children suggest that Maier presented herself to others in multiple ways, with various accents, names, life details, and that her behavior with children could be inspiring and positive, and also unpredictable and frightening.
The Gensburg brothers, whom Maier had looked after as children, tried to help her as she became poorer in old age. When she was about to be evicted from a cheap apartment in the suburb of Cicero, the Gensburg brothers arranged for her to live in a better apartment on Sheridan Road in the Rogers Park Community area of Chicago. In November 2008, Maier fell on the ice and hit her head. She was taken to a hospital but failed to recover. In January 2009, she was transported to a nursing home inHighland Park, where she died on April 21, 2009.