The Life and Work of Street Photographer Vivian Maier
By: Nora O’Donnell
On an unremarkable day in late 2007, John Maloof, a young real-estate agent, spent some time at a local auction house, RPN Sales in Portage Park, combing through assortments of stuff—some of it junk—that had been abandoned or repossessed. A third-generation reseller, Maloof hoped to find some historical photographs for a small book about Portage Park that he was cowriting on the side. He came across a box that had been repossessed from a storage locker, and a hasty search revealed a wealth of black-and-white shots of the Loop from the 1950s and ’60s. There’s got to be something pertinent in there, he thought. So he plunked down about $400 for the box and headed home. A closer examination unearthed no scenes of Portage Park, though the box turned out to contain more than 30,000 negatives. Maloof shoved it all into his closet.
Something nagged, however—perhaps a reflex picked up from working the flea market circuit as a poor kid growing up on the West Side of Chicago. Though he knew almost nothing about photography, he eventually returned to the box and started looking through the negatives, scanning some into his computer. There was a playfulness to the moments the anonymous artist had captured: a dapper preschool boy peeking from the corner of a grimy store window; an ample rump squeezing through the wooden planks of a park bench; a man in a three-piece suit napping, supine, in the front seat of his car, his right arm masking his face from the daylight. Whoa, Maloof mused. These are really cool. Who took them?
A contact at the auction house didn’t know the photographer’s name but told Maloof that the contents of the repossessed storage locker had belonged to an elderly woman who was ill. As time passed, Maloof tracked down a handful of people who had acquired similar caches of negatives once owned by the same woman, and he bought the boxes off them. With the collection becoming expensive to maintain, this lifelong reseller did what came naturally: He cut up some of the negatives and hawked them on eBay. They proved startlingly popular—some sold for as much as $80 a pop. Maloof realized that he’d come across something special, and he determined to crack the case of the anonymous photographer.
One day in late April 2009, more than a year after he bought that first box at RPN, Maloof got a break. He found an envelope from a photo lab buried in one of the boxes. Scribbled in pencil was a name: Vivian Maier. One hit from a Google search linked to an item from the Chicago Tribune that had been posted just days before. It was the paid death notice for an 83-year-old woman: “Vivian Maier, proud native of France and Chicago resident for the last 50 years died peacefully on Monday. Second mother to John, Lane and Matthew. A free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all who knew her. Always ready to give her advice, opinion or a helping hand. Movie critic and photographer extraordinaire. A truly special person who will be sorely missed but whose long and wonderful life we all celebrate and will always remember.”
After a call to the Tribune left him with a faulty address and a disconnected phone number, Maloof didn’t know where to turn. In the meantime, though, he started displaying Maier’s work on a blog,vivianmaier.com. Then, in October 2009, he linked to the blog on Flickr, the photo-sharing website, and posted a question about Maier’s pictures on a discussion board devoted to street photography: “What do I do with this stuff (other than giving it to you)?”
The discussion went viral. Suggestions poured in, and websites from around the world sent traffic to his blog. (If you Google “Vivian Maier” today, you’ll get more than 18,000 results.) Maloof recognized that this was bigger than he’d thought.
He was right about that. Since his tentative online publication of a smattering of Vivian Maier’s photographs, her work has generated a fanatical following. In the past year, her photos have appeared in newspapers in Italy, Argentina, and England. There have been exhibitions in Denmark and Norway, and a showing is scheduled to open in January at the Chicago Cultural Center. Few of the pictures had ever been seen before by anyone other than Maier herself, and Maloof has only scratched the surface of what she left behind. He estimates that he’s acquired 100,000 of her negatives, and another interested collector, Jeff Goldstein, has 12,000 more (some of them displayed at vivianmaierphotography.com). Most of Maier’s photos are black and white, and many feature unposed or casual shots of people caught in action—passing moments that nonetheless possess an underlying gravity and emotion. And Maier apparently ranged far and wide with her camera—there are negatives from Los Angeles, Egypt, Bangkok, Italy, the American Southwest. The astonishing breadth and depth of Maier’s work led Maloof to pursue two questions, as alluring in their way as her captivating photographs: Who was Vivian Maier, and what explains her extraordinary vision?
Filing away negatives one day, Maloof, who today is 29, found a promising lead: Stuck to the bottom of a shoebox was a Highland Park address for someone named Avron Gensburg. Another quick Google search pulled up a related address with the names John and Lane—the same names as two of the people mentioned in Maier’s death notice. A little more sleuthing revealed that from 1956 to 1972, Maier had lived with Avron and Nancy Gensburg in Highland Park as a nanny for their three boys: John, Lane, and Matthew.
Today, Lane Gensburg, a 54-year-old tax attorney, is the citadel of Maier’s memory, and he is adamant that nothing unflattering be said about the woman who raised him from birth. When he starts talking about Maier, his eyes soften. “She was like Mary Poppins,” he tells me. “She had an amazing ability to relate to children.”
Maier had answered the Gensburgs’ ad seeking a nanny in 1956, and when she arrived, she almost looked the part of Mary Poppins. Under a heavy coat, she wore sturdy shoes and a long skirt with a lace slip, and she carried an enormous carpetbag. “She was dressed so differently,” recalls Nancy Gensburg. Maier was tall—five feet eight—but she appeared taller. “A very classy lady,” Nancy says. Maier’s trademark was the camera dangling around her neck. She was also very French. “She looked French, quite frankly,” Lane says. “She had a prominent nose.”
Technically, Maier wasn’t French, though she spoke with a watery French accent. According to her birth certificate, which Maloof found buried in some possessions the Gensburgs gave him, Vivian Dorothy Maier was born in New York on February 1, 1926, the daughter of Maria Jaussaud Maier, a Frenchwoman, and Charles Maier, an Austrian. By the time Vivian was four years old, her father was out of the picture, for reasons unknown. She and her mother pop up in the 1930 census, but the head of the household was a 49-year-old Frenchwoman named Jeanne Bertrand, identified as a portrait photographer. In the early 1900s, Bertrand was a successful and award-winning photographer who had an acquaintance with Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, an artist and the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Jim Leonhirth, a freelance journalist in Tennessee who is writing a book about Bertrand and other photographers from her era, knows nothing about Bertrand’s connection with Maier, but he confirms that Bertrand had steady work in a New Jersey studio around the same time that Maier and her mother were living with her.
Maier and her mother returned to France for long periods of time, but where they lived is not known. On April 16, 1951, at age 25, Maier sailed unaccompanied from Le Havre in northwestern France and arrived in New York ten days later. What Maier did in New York for the next five years—besides take pictures, which abound in Maloof’s collection—remains unclear, but it’s likely she picked up work as a live-in caregiver, an occupation she would keep for the rest of her life.
Even among the people closest to her, she could be elusive about her background. The Gensburgs aren’t sure what brought her to Chicago or when she arrived. She was more forthcoming with her insights and opinions. “She really wasn’t interested in being a nanny at all,” Nancy Gensburg says. “But she didn’t know how to do anything else.”
The Gensburg boys adored Maier’s knack for creating quirky adventures. She wanted them to explore life beyond the confined suburbia of Highland Park—“the sticks,” as she put it. Maier and the boys might see the latest screening of an art film, visit the famous monuments of Graceland Cemetery, bundle up for the Chinese New Year parade, or forage for wild strawberries in a forest preserve—one of Maier’s favorite activities.
After one particular trip to the city with the boys, Maier returned to Highland Park in a state. While on the train, Lane had gestured out the window to the apartments along the el. “Look, Vivian!” he said. “The closets are hanging outside!” He had never seen clothes drying on a line. “Do you really think everybody has a dryer and a washer, Lane?” Maier asked. The little boy nodded. “That’s just terrible,” she told their mother later.
“She wanted them to be very aware of what was going on in the world,” Nancy Gensburg says.
On her days off, Maier would take a spin on her moped or go to the movies. If someone famous was in town—President Kennedy or Eleanor Roosevelt, for example—she’d pack up her cameras, work her way through the crowd, and snap a souvenir. Other days, she’d lock herself in her private bathroom, which she’d converted to a darkroom. “We could never get in,” recalls Avron Gensburg, the retired head of an arcade game manufacturer. “Not that we wanted to.” Maier didn’t talk about meeting up with friends, and there was no evidence of a boyfriend, let alone a husband. (To those who made the mistake of calling her Mrs. Maier, she’d respond tartly, “It’s Miss Maier, and I’m proud of it.”)
Maier collected things—or perhaps it’s equally true to say she had trouble throwing things away. Negatives, cameras, clothes, shoes, tape recordings, documents—Maloof’s attic is now a cluttered repository. She had an especially weak spot for newspapers. In her little bathroom at the Gensburgs’, the stack of papers on the back of her toilet reached the ceiling. However, “she didn’t keep papers just to keep papers,” Nancy Gensburg points out. “There was always an article that she’d want to get back to and couldn’t.”
For six months from 1959 to 1960, Maier circumnavigated the globe alone. Although she never talked about her family, Avron Gensburg recalls that Maier inherited part of a small farm in Alsace, and it appears that she sold her share and used the money to travel to Los Angeles, Manila, Bangkok, Beijing, Egypt, Italy, France, and New York. “If she wanted to go, she’d just get up and go,” Nancy recalls. The family would hire a temporary replacement while Maier was away; she never said where she was headed. “You really wouldn’t ask her about it at all,” Nancy says. “I mean, you could, but . . .” Her voice trails off. “She was private. Period.”
Maier would share some of her photographs of the children with the Gensburgs, but she wouldn’t gift them. “If you wanted a picture,” Nancy says, “you had to buy it.” But Maier wasn’t selling her photography for profit. “Someone had to want it more than she wanted it. It’s like an artist who would paint something and then hate to get rid of it. She loved everything she did.”
* * *
When Maier left the Gensburgs’ employ in 1972—by then, the boys were old enough not to need a nanny—she took everything she owned and didn’t mention her subsequent jobs, not even when she’d stop by later to visit the boys. Despite the gaps in her timeline, it seems she never strayed very far from the North Shore; she always managed to land in another house in need of a nanny.
One belonged to Phil Donahue. After he moved his TV talk show to Chicago in 1974, he separated from his wife, and a divorce followed. He and his four boys ended up in Winnetka. “There was no Aunt Bee,” Donahue recalls, referring to the iconic caregiver from The Andy Griffith Show. “The women who came into my life as nannies didn’t last too long. No matter who they were, the kids hated them. They were rent-a-mothers.”
Maier lived with Donahue for less than a year, and his children, as well as a couple of his nieces, don’t share the Gensburgs’ memories of her as Mary Poppins incarnate. She was the eccentric Frenchwoman who dragged them to obscure monuments, served them yucky peanut butter sandwiches with apricots, and made the girls a present of a paper bag full of green army men.
Donahue’s youngest son, James, who was around 12 at the time, remembers that Maier would roam the neighborhood taking odd photographs in a getup that reminded him of Maria von Trapp, the only other European woman he had met at the time. (Von Trapp had made an appearance on Donahue.) Maier would startle easily and exclaim, “Oh! Bah la-la bah!”—an expression that can be heard on audiotapes she made of interviews she conducted with the children or elderly people under her care. On those recordings, she dodges questions about herself.
Donahue recalls that Maier took pictures, but he doesn’t remember any prints. “I once saw her taking a picture inside a refuse can,” he says. “I never remotely thought that what she was doing would have some special artistic value.”
Over the years, her subject matter changed. She stopped shooting in black and white, and her work became more abstract—artfully placed garbage, for example. There were no more pictures of the pyramids; she no longer made exotic trips. And she seemed to grow even more elusive—she would go long periods, sometimes years, without checking in with the Gensburgs.
By the time she arrived at the busy Glenview home of Zalman and Karen Usiskin in 1987, Maier was hauling around 30 years’ worth of photography. When she interviewed with Zalman, a mathematics professor at the University of Chicago, and Karen, a textbook editor, she made one thing clear: “I have to tell you that I come with my life, and my life is in boxes,” she said. No problem, they told her. They have a large garage. “We had no idea,” Zalman says. “She came with 200 boxes.” The family placed them in storage, and they sat untouched until Maier left a year later.
The Usiskins say Maier was good with their two children, but they heard she was less than kind to the taxi drivers on her trips to do the family’s grocery shopping. (She never learned to drive.) Back at home, she’d set aside all the bruised fruit, which she’d bought especially for herself. “If we would have a piece of meat [at dinner],” Karen says, “she would eat all the fat off of it—like somebody who was looking for calories to stay alive.” Karen surmises that Maier wasn’t comfortable buying expensive things. “I think that she had a real identity with being a poor person,” she says. “That was something that she was proud of.”
From 1989 to 1993, Maier cared for the disabled daughter of Federico Bayleander in his Wilmette home, and the stories about her start repeating: She was good with his daughter. She stored hundreds of boxes in his basement. She enjoyed critiquing movies and passionate conversations about politics. Neighbors complained that she was rude on the telephone. And there was something distinctive about her walk—a determined and heavy-footed gait, her arms swinging in large strokes.
After Bayleander, there was an employer in Oak Park and eventually a move to a cheap apartment in Cicero. When Lane Gensburg and his younger brother, Matthew, reconnected with her in the late nineties, they insisted on putting her up in a nice apartment in Rogers Park. “We were comfortable as long as we knew where she was,” Lane says.
He believes Maier was living off Social Security before his family stepped in to help, but she apparently had other sources of income. Today, Maloof can reach into almost any of her boxes and pull out a dozen stock certificates or uncashed refund checks from the Department of the Treasury, some of them for more than a thousand dollars.
* * *
The Gensburgs worried about her. Fearless as ever, Maier would walk around late at night in the more unsavory parts of Chicago and chat up the homeless under the el, giving advice or directing them to a shelter.
Around Christmas in 2008, Maier slipped on some ice while walking downtown, hit her head, and ended up in the emergency room. “We thought she was going to make a full recovery,” Lane says.
The Gensburg sons called in the best doctors and later moved her to a nursing home in Oak Park, where they would visit her after work. On the way to one of their visits, Lane and Matthew picked up their mother and grilled her: “Did you bring The New York Times for Vivian? Should we get her some coffee ice cream? She loves coffee ice cream.” Nancy muses, “They knew everything about her. She was just a unique person. But she didn’t think anything of herself.”
Maier passed away at the Oak Park nursing home on April 20, 2009. The Gensburg sons scattered her ashes in the forest where they all had found joy together picking wild strawberries.
* * *
Although Maloof has thrown out numerous boxes full of newspapers, he’s holding on to the rest of Maier’s belongings to search for more clues to her story. In late 2009, he ran into an old high-school friend, Anthony Rydzon, who had majored in documentary filmmaking at Columbia College, and Rydzon suggested they make a film about Maier. They had the time: Rydzon had recently lost his job as a stagehand, and Maloof had switched from selling real estate to reselling products on eBay. Today their movie project is on hold, but there’s talk that a professional documentary team might be interested in telling Maier’s story. The two friends spend nearly every day in the attic scanning Maier’s photographs, prepping prints for various exhibitions, and sifting through boxes for new leads on people they might interview.
The immense volume of the photos makes for a daunting archiving effort. Maloof estimates that he’s scanned only one-tenth of the negatives in his collection—and he’s barely glanced at the remaining 90,000. When he finds a particularly strong photograph, he posts it on his blog.
With the excitement online and the exhibits around the world (the Cultural Center show opens January 7th), there is ample evidence of the popularity of Maier’s work, but how much of that stems from the unusual story of Maloof’s discovery and the curious nature of the woman behind it all? During our interview, Phil Donahue—who knew Maier only as a nanny, not an artist—asked, “Is there a preponderance of evidence out there that these [photographs] are really special?”
Colin Westerbeck, the former curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago and one of the country’s leading experts on street photography, thinks Maier is an interesting case. He inspected her work after Maloof e-mailed him. “She worked the streets in a savvy way,” he says. “But when you consider the level of street photography happening in Chicago in the fifties and sixties, she doesn’t stand out.” Westerbeck explains that Maier’s work lacks the level of irony and wit of some of her Chicago contemporaries, such as Harry Callahan or Yasuhiro Ishimoto, and unlike them, she herself is often a participant in the shot. The greatest artists, Westerbeck says, know how to create a distance from their subjects.
Yet Westerbeck admits that he understands the allure of Maier’s work. “She was a kind of mysterious figure,” he says. “What’s compelling about her pictures is the way that they capture the local character of Chicago in the past decades.”
In any case, John Maloof has made it his mission to spread the word on his remarkable discovery. “I owe Vivian an honest effort to get her recognized as one of the great photographers of her time,” he says. “I’m only spending time on her story because the world is demanding it from me. The more I learn about Vivian, the more fascinated I am about this woman. She was a singular person, extremely intelligent, and her talent was extraordinary. I get great satisfaction in sharing it with the world.”
But Maier was an intensely private person. What would she think of Maloof’s mission? Wouldn’t she hate it? Maloof believes she wouldn’t mind because the world has moved on, and he lets her speak for herself. After a long search, he plays a recording from an interview she conducted with an elderly woman: “I suppose nothing is meant to last forever,” Maier says in her accented English. “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. There’s nothing new under the sun.”