“Well, I suppose nothing is meant to last forever. 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 Maier
Vivian Maier’s life is described in the title of her biography as “A riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” While the quote from an October 1939 speech by Winston Churchill describing Russia might seem a strange way to describe a street photographer, it is fitting for the nanny who carried a camera everywhere, photographing her world. Vivian Maier did not become famous until well after her death. Her trove of negatives and undeveloped film was purchased by John Maloof from a local thrift auction house on Chicago’s Northwest side.
Street photography revived
Maloof’s work to preserve, catalog and draw attention to Vivian Maier’s work has led to a revival of interest in street photography. He has amassed close to 90% of her archive.
Maier was born in the Bronx borough of New York City. At the age of four, she was living with her mother and Jeanne Bertrand, an award-winning portrait photographer.
Living in France
Records about Vivian’s life are scarce. At some point she, her mother and Bertrand moved to France. This is where she began making photographs with a Kodak Brownie. At some time in 1939, she returns to New York. Records show that she returned to New York permanently without her mother, Marie Maier in 1951. She had arrived on the steamship “DeGrass” and lived with a family as a nanny in Southhampton.
Brownie to Rollei
Vivian purchased a German-made twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex camera in 1952. She continued living in New York until she moved permanently to Chicago. There, she became the nanny for three boys. This family would be the closest relationship in her life. Her life in Chicago found her with not only her own bathroom but a darkroom as well.
As the children grew up, the family downsized forcing the loss of her darkroom where she had previously developed her many rolls of film. The end of her employment with that family in the 70s forced her to stop processing her film. She moved from family to family for work. The number of rolls undeveloped grew.
Vivian became stressed financially and, for a time, was homeless. She settled in a small studio apartment that a previous family helped fund. She struggled to keep up with the payments for storing her undeveloped film and processed negatives. Ultimately, these were sold to cover unpaid rent to several buyers including John Maloof.
In 2007, Maier suffered a fall on some ice in downtown Chicago. She hit her head. She was expected to make a full recovery. Instead, her health began to fail. She was forced into a nursing home. She died in April of 2009 leaving behind her a vast archive documenting street life in both New York and Chicago.
How would Vivian have presented her work?
This is a question that, like so much of her life, will remain a mystery. The work on her website, vivianmaier.com, has never been printed. Rather, her photos seen on her site and in prints in museums, galleries and private collections are from scans of her negatives. How she would have printed her work will never be known.
I encourage you to read her biography on her website and to watch the video “Finding Vivian Maier” for a more complete view of her life and work, both as a caring, albeit free-spirited nanny and a posthumously famous street photographer and documentarian of everyday life. Here is the trailer to the Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary (2003.) It is available for purchase or for rent on YouTube.
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