Biography of Vivian Maier
Vivian Dorothy Maier was born in New York to a French mother, Maria Jaussaud Justin, and an Austrian father, Charles (Wilhelm) Maier. Her mother (like her grandmother) worked as a residential servant while her father was a steam engineer. Maier is known to have had one older brother, Karl, from whom she is thought to have been estranged throughout her life. One year before Vivian was born, Karl was placed briefly in the Heckscher Foundation Children's Home before being put in the care of his paternal grandparents. Karl had been removed from his parents' charge due to "constant conflict" and it is known that he suffered mental health issues and was imprisoned several times throughout his lifetime.
Around the age of four, Maier's father - who had been denounced by his own mother as a "gambler and drunkard" - left the family and she remained in her mother's care, living alternately in the United States, and in the French alpine village of Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur where her mother's extended family resided. The Maiers spent some of their time in the United States living with Jeanne Bertrand, a French-born professional portrait photographer and sculptor. Records suggest that Maier and her mother lived with Bertrand in both Boston and the Bronx, New York. For reasons that are undocumented, when Maier was nine years old, her mother falsely reported to the census that Charles was living once again with the family in New York.
Education and Early Training
Maier likely gained an early interest in photography (and perhaps some informal instruction) from Bertrand, although there is no recorded information to corroborate this. In any case, it appears that Maier was self-taught, drawing insights into photographic practice from images she saw at the exhibitions she frequented, by photographers like Brassaï and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
By 1943, Maier (then aged seventeen) was no longer living with her mother, and was residing with a married couple who fostered children in Jackson Heights, Queens, named John and Berthe Lindenberger. When John passed away, Maier stayed on for some time with Berthe. She took on a second job, working at the Madame Alexander Doll Factory. Later in the decade, Maier returned to France where she began practicing photography using a Kodak Brownie camera with 6x9 film format, and no option for adjusting shutter speed, focus, or aperture. It would not be long, however, before she would switch to using an expensive Rolleiflex with square format film.
In 1951, Maier returned from Europe. She made a brief trip to Canada, and then set about looking for employment in the United States. After working briefly in a sweatshop in Manhattan, she moved into the home of a family with a young daughter in Southampton and worked for them as a nanny until 1956.
Maier then moved to the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, and gained employment as a nanny for the Gensburg family, who had three young boys. At the Gensburg home, she enjoyed the use of a private bathroom-cum-darkroom for processing her photographs. She was a solitary person with few to no friends or sexual partners, and enjoyed attending the cinema and theatre alone (which helped her improve her spoken English).
Maier sometimes brought her young charges along with her on photography excursions, travelling by bus or train to the inner city. She would tell the children "Don't tell your parents where we went" but it was important for her to introduce them to a world beyond their affluent neighborhood. On one occasion, she was returning home with the Gensburg boys by train after taking them into the city when one of the boys remarked: "Look, Vivian! The closets are hanging outside!", as he had never seen clothes drying on a clothesline. She asked him "Do you really think everybody has a dryer and a washer?" to which the child confirmed he had thought that. Later that night she relayed this story to Mrs. Gensburg suggesting that her son's attitude was "just terrible". Despite their age and class differences, The Gensburg brothers and Maier would carry their close affection for one another into the boys' adulthood and Maier's old age.
The Gensburg family describes Maier as being "like a real, live Mary Poppins", noting that she never spoke down to the children. She was also described as private, a Socialist, a Feminist, and a very direct person. Other employers described her as being prone to irritability, mood swings, and angry outbursts, bordering on abusiveness at times. It is also claimed that she was extremely secretive, bordering on paranoid, and constantly worried that her employers were entering her quarters.
In the late 1950s, Maier received a sizeable sum of money from the sale of a farm in France that she had inherited from her great-grandfather, Germain Jaussaud. She used these funds to finance solo trips, first to South America in 1957, and then around the world between 1959 and 1960, photographing urban scenes in cities in the Philippines, Thailand, China, India, Syria, Egypt, and Italy. In the following years, she also made trips around the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, and South America.
In the 1970s, Maier worked briefly as a housekeeper for talk-show host Phil Donahue. In her living quarters, she kept boxes of her photography work, as well as her collections of newspaper (stacked in "shoulder-high piles") and audiotapes. The tapes are mostly descriptive comments about her shooting practice ("first time with cue light" for instance) though in one recording she is heard saying "Women are supposed to be opinionated, I hope". By this time Maier had switched from black-and-white to color photography, primarily using a Kodak Ektachrome camera with 35mm film, as well as a Leica IIIc, and sometimes various German SLR cameras. Her work became more abstract too, even focusing occasionally on found objects.
The three Gensburg brothers, who had kept in contact with Maier throughout her life, assisted her in her old age. However, she grew increasingly destitute, and lived for a time in a cheap apartment in the Cicero suburb of Chicago, keeping most of her belongings (including her photographs and negatives) in five storage lockers at the Hebard Storage facility on the North side of Chicago.
When she was about to be evicted, the Gensburg brothers made arrangements for her to move to a less dilapidated apartment on Sheridan Road, in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. Nevertheless, Maier fell behind in her rental payments for the storage lockers, and in 2007, the storage company auctioned off the four tons of negatives, print, and audio recordings that had been housed there. The buyers of Maier's storage locker contents included photography collectors John Maloof, Ron Slattery, and Randy Prow. Slattery was the first to publish some of her works online, but they received little response. Maloof had purchased the greater part of Maier's archive - some 30,000 negatives - as he was working on a book about the history of Chicago's Portage Park neighborhood. He later purchased more of her prints from another buyer at the original auction.
Local residents remember Maier in her later years, as she spent most days sitting on her favorite bench at a local park, often yelling erratically at passers-by, and sometimes going through nearby garbage bins and dumpsters. In November 2008, while at the park, Maier slipped on ice and hit her head, and was rushed to the hospital. She failed to make a full recovery, and was moved to a nursing home in January 2009. She passed away a few months later.
The Legacy of Vivian Maier
Maloof had made attempts to learn about Maier's life but was not able to find any information until he came across her obituary in the Chicago Tribune (dated April 23, 2009): "Vivian Maier, proud native of France and Chicago resident for the last 50 years died peacefully on Monday [...] 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". With Maloof's help, Maier was to become remembered in ways the Chicago Tribune could never have predicted. Yet her posthumous fame has given rise to ethical and philosophical debates.
In October 2009, Maloof published several of Maier's works online, and this time the images "went viral", drawing responses from thousands of people. Maloof currently owns some 150,000 negatives, 3,000 vintage prints, hundreds of rolls of film, newspaper cuttings, books (Maier was an avid reader, and was particularly fond of biographies and autobiographies) and assorted documents (including bills and correspondences). Maier's obsession with documenting Chicago's disenfranchised community and the demolition of some of its historical landmarks (in the name of redevelopment) even extended beyond still images to include a number of homemade movies and audio tape interviews.
In early 2010, art collector Jeffrey Goldstein purchased several of Maier's works from Randy Prow, and through subsequent acquisitions, his Maier collection has grown to include some 17,500 negatives, 2,000 prints, and 30 homemade movies. In December of 2014, Goldstein sold his collection of Maier's black-and-white negatives to the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto. In the 2014-15 academic year, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago inaugurated the Vivian Maier Scholarship Fund. Supported by donations by Maloof, filmmaker Charles Siskel, and gallerist and photography dealer Howard Greenburg, the fund was established to support female students based on financial need.
Maloof (with other collectors and curators) has been criticized for making aesthetic choices on how Maier's work should be represented (not to mention profited from). Those who knew her, have complained that Maier would have had profound objections to her work being exploited in this way and that photography was merely a symptom of her pathology that took in other obsessive traits too. Defending his actions, Maloof, while in the process of making his 2013 documentary Finding Vivian Maier, discovered on a trip to the village of Saint-Bonnet-en-Champseur in France, that Maier had been in correspondence with a photographic printing service - thus offering evidence that she was at least considering the possibility of her work being exhibited publicly.
Those moral objections notwithstanding, photographer Anna Fox asserts that "Every street photography book will have to include [Maier] from now on". Art critic Roberta Smith added that Maier's work "may add to the history of 20th-century street photography by summing it up with an almost encyclopaedic thoroughness, veering close to just about every well-known photographer you can think of, including Weegee, Robert Frank and Richard Avedon, and then sliding off in another direction". To the next generation of street photographers, Maier's work provides an historical example of the way in which everyday scenarios can be imbued with a particular aesthetic power, and that through thoughtful framing and composition, the photographer might then find a way of using their camera to capture something of the psychological space of their subjects. But, as Fox and several others have also observed, the most interesting part of Maier's narrative extends beyond her photography to accommodate the mythology that tells us of an extraordinary secret life.
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
First published on 04 May 2020. Updated and modified regularly