The word “nanny” isn’t typically associated with the words “photographic genius.” Then comes Vivian Maier.
While she was initially only remembered for her day job of watching children, she had a secret life— one that wasn’t discovered until after her death in 2009.
She took photos. Not just a few photos— hundreds of thousands. And they weren’t just any photos. Her recently discovered works have been described as vivid, breaktaking and priceless, and she is said to have skills comparable to artists such as Robert Frank.
But, unlike them, she kept her works hidden. She didn’t want to be known for them. She came into the limelight completely involuntarily— her photos were discovered in a dusty box inside a Chicago storage unit, where she probably thought they’d forever stay.
All that have seen her works agree that she had a gift. She captured complete strangers in a way that made them appear vulnerable and real, something many street photographers strive for and that few achieve. Her photos display people in their most honest and vulnerable habitats, and how she was able to do this without catching them off guard is perhaps the biggest mystery of all. Her photos give us a powerful glimpse of the past that would’ve never otherwise been seen. She has changed the history of street photography as we know it. Not to mention, she may have been the real originator of the selfie.
But who was she, exactly? Where did she come from? And most importantly, why the secrets?
Maier’s obituary calls her a “proud native of France,” although she was actually born in New York to immigrant parents. She lived chunks of her childhood in France with her mother, and permanently relocated to America in the 1950s. Her reasons for making her way to Chicago and her initial decision to nanny children, however, are not fully known.
A Hidden Passion
As a nanny, Maier was known for taking her children on walks with her, sometimes through bad parts of town, during which she would snap photos of anything and everything in her surroundings. Most of her children, despite this, now have only positive things to say about her. She lived with one family in particular, the Gensburgs, for 16 years, and essentially raised all three of the Gensburg’s children: John, Lane & Matthew. These same boys later helped her find a place to live in her old age, although they didn’t deny her questionable tendencies at times.
A Deeper Issue
Like other artists before her time, such as Emily Dickinson, Maier leaves a lingering feeling of mystery to those who hear her story. Those who knew her described her as utterly odd, reclusive and aloof, and the Gensburg family (with whom she lived for 16 years) were among the first to take note of her extreme packrat tendencies.
Speculation of some form of mental illness may have accounted for her often eccentric and unexplainable behavior, such as sometimes changing her name upon being asked and referring to herself as a spy. A spy for whom? Were her photos to be sent to a spy’s headquarters as evidence of something unknown? It could be argued, however, that it was this unique perspective of the world that made her such an artistic genius.
Her Work Lives On
Artist and cabinet maker Jeff Goldstein has acquired the second-largest sum of Vivian Maier’s prints and negatives, owning around 16,000 prints. He’s worked tirelessly to lay out all of his negatives in chronological order in an attempt to piece together bits of Maier’s life.
Goldstein even had a team at the College of DuPage in Chicago donating their Saturday afternoons to processing Maier’s film. On the process of uncovering all the film, Goldstein is quoted in a NY Times blog post saying, “This is a rarity, where the work just gets better and better. We’re surprised by the consistency and strength of the work.”
It will remain a mystery why Maier chose to die essentially penniless and unknown. Perhaps she preferred life this way, or maybe she didn’t think her prints were actually worth anything. The rest of the world disagrees.