A Nanny with a Camera: The Story and Heritage of Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier worked as a nanny for her entire adult life. She photographed the streets of Chicago while taking her wards on walks. If it had not been for a man buying a some of her negatives at an auction no one would have found out that she was a street photographer of genius.

On March 24th and 27th, in the “Kinopanorama” movie theater, Kiev, Bird In Flight will host an exclusive viewing of “Finding Vivian Maier”, this year’s Oscar-nominee in the documentary category. We asked Marina Gramovich to research the film’s protagonist – one of the most mysterious photographers of the 20th century.


Maier lived a quiet secluded life and became famous only posthumously, when hundreds of thousands of photographs, carefully sorted and stored, were accidentally discovered among her other belongings. It turned out that for 30 years the secretive nanny was shooting the streets of New York and Chicago, leaving behind a huge photo archive. Maier took approximately 5000 pictures a year, dozens of which have been acknowledged as masterpieces of street photography.

The Vivian Maier phenomenon involves more than her photography heritage; it also includes the quasi-detective story that surfaced in the media. Meier’s photographs and other materials were discovered by pure chance, just the way a hidden treasure is discovered in an adventure novel.

What we know about Vivian is meagre: it is what can be reconstructed from her own self-portraits, as well as her former charges’ and few friends’ testimonies. Born in New York in 1926, Meier spent her childhood and adolescence years in France, with regular visits to America with her mother. It was in France that Vivian took her first pictures with an amateur, rather bulky and unpractical, Kodak Brownie camera. At age 25 she permanently settled in the U.S.

Back in her native city, Vivian Maier decided to become a nanny and found a decent live-in position with a well-off family. She spent her spare time in the streets of New York, taking pictures of life around her – with a much better camera – a Rolleiflex.

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Vivian Maier worked in the genre of street photography. She managed to single out interesting details, capture the unusual in the monotonous thread of daily routine. She took pictures of people in the street, genre scenes, captured intonations and moods. Along with photography, Meier recorded documentary videos and did audio recordings of her conversations with the subjects of her photographs and ordinary passers-by.

In 1956 Meier moved to Chicago where she spent the rest of her life, working as a nanny for 40 years and doing her photography along the way.

Kids loved nanny Vivian – in spite of her accent, strange style of clothing and eccentric ways. Maier wore mannish shoes, baggy jackets and wide-brimmed hats, but she enjoyed self-portraits, shooting herself from all possible angles and attitudes. She was strict and reserved, but she could start a conversation with a total stranger in the street in order to make an audio recording. She was inseparable from her camera, shooting a roll of film a day, but she never showed her photographs to anyone. Children enjoyed being around her: she was someone who would bring a dead snake home, direct a theatre performance with participation of all the kids of the block, do a guided tour around a cemetery or take her charges to a strawberry field.

She worked the longest (over 17 years) for the Gensburgs, where she became a second mother to John, Lane and Matthew. They became the closest people to Vivian Maier, and stayed in touch and supported their nanny financially when she was growing older.

Maier never had a family of her own. She was a confirmed feminist and, according her her employers, was even proud of her life as a single woman. She didn’t make any close friends either. She was entirely committed to her charges and to photography.

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Art historian and photography expert, Irina Tolkacheva, writes about Vivian Maier, “Beholders admire Maier’s photographs for two apparent reasons: the general interest to street photography and the author’s enigmatic personality. In the photographs we see the life of Chicago in the 1950-70s. Interesting characters, funny, strange or touching situations, diversity of costumes, minute details, bold angles. The pictures are very lucid, the viewer knows what he is supposed to look at, who the main character is and what is going on.

Art critics say different things about Maier, sometimes they say totally controversial things. That is perfectly normal since we know next to nothing about her. As a natural for photography, she took pictures because she couldn’t help it. But as a professional photographer she didn’t exist. She didn’t have any exhibitions; her works were not published – no one ever bought them; she didn’t have any teachers, colleagues, pupils or fans. We have no idea as to whether she knew anything about photography; whether she met other photographers; whether she was influenced by anyone. Nor do we know if Vivian Maier had anything to say to us though her works. Probably she she was doing it just for fun and never thought of herself as a photographer.”

In Chicago she had a room with a private bathroom that Vivian converted into a lab where she developed her films and made prints. But it was not always possible to make prints, so more and more unprocessed films were stored in the “archive.”

After getting money – assumably from selling her real estate in France – Maier could afford to do some traveling. In 1959-1960 she visited Egypt, Italy, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, doing a lot of photography on the way.

Exposed films, as well as audio and video recordings, were carefully sorted out, labelled and catalogued. The archive boxes travelled with her from one home to another, from family to family.

Dozens of boxes with photo films were sold at an auction because there was no one to pay for their storage at a warehouse. Vivian Maier the photographer’s story could end right there, without even starting.

When she was hired by a new family, on moving in, Maier would ask her hosts to put a lock on her door. By doing so, she was taking care of her private space and hiding her photo works from the world. It is not clear why she did that. Whether Vivian was too timid of public opinion – the reason will most probably remain a mystery, we can only guess.

Late 1990s were a difficult period for Maier – out of work and, consequently, of lodgings, she had to leave the better part of her belongings at a warehouse and survive on scanty social allowances. After a while the Gensburg brothers found a small apartment and were diligently paying the rent for her till 2008 when Vivian had a head injury after slipping in a street. From that point she needed permanent care, and was put into a nursing home in New York city where she died in 2009.

Her treasures, dozens of boxes with film footage, audio records and photo films were sold at an auction in 2007 since no one was paying for their storage at the warehouse. At that point the story of Vivian Maier the photographer could finish without having started because many belongings of lonely old people end up in a landfill. But her things were purchased by a John Maloof.

It was Maloof who found photographer Vivian Maier and introduced her to the world.


John Maloof is the person whose role in this story is no less important than that of the photographer herself, even if the two of them have a few decades between them and have never met in person.

In 2007 John, a young real estate agent, walked into an auction house in search for materials for his book on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Learning that some old photo materials were for sale he purchased a few of Vivian’s boxes.

When he unpacked them, John discovered a few thousand photo films – in wonderful condition and chronologically sorted. The majority of the materials dated back to the 1950s-1980s. Having not found anything relevant for his book though, Maloof put the boxes into a closet and forgot about them for a while.

When the book he had been working at went to print, John remembered the mysterious photo archive of an unknown author. He started scanning the films and got so inspired, he picked up his point-and-shoot camera and and started documenting his city, with a neophyte’s zeal, trying to imitate Vivian Maier’s style of photography. He became a serious fan of the unknown photographer and made up his mind to find out as much as about her as he could.

The name was easy to find out – it was on photo lab receipts and envelopes. Maloof tried to contact Vivian Maier. She was at a nursery home at the time, and he was told she was not receiving any visitors. Some time later, when Maloof made another attempt to have a conversation with Maier to find out about her life, he learned that she had passed away. At that point there was nothing John could do but study the contents of the boxes, searching for any clues. He found Vivian’s former charges, the Gensburg brothers, who helped him get access to two more depositories with the belongings of their nanny. Maloof got in touch with other families that Maier had nannied for – by then he considered himself the first dedicated researcher of her life and creative work. Maloof managed to collect close to 90 per cent of her work, having bought 100,000 to 150,000 negatives, over 3,000 prints, thousands of black-and-white and colour home movies, audio records and a huge bulk of newspaper clippings, carefully organised in binders. Another collector, Jeff Goldstein, managed to salvage the rest.

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After creating a blog showing about 100 photos of her work that nobody visited for months, he posted a discussion on Flickr to the group HCSP, and the response and traffic was overwhelming. Since then, he’s been on a non-stop schedule of archiving, promoting, and preserving Vivian Maier’s work.

The story of unveiling Vivian’s work did have its difficult moments, of course.

The first stumbling block were John Maloof’s moral doubts: whether to show his discovery or not? Does he have the right to demonstrate to the public something that Maier was consciously concealing during her whole life? Or, was it his sacred duty to reveal to the public the works of this amazing lady who didn’t find the heart to do it herself? This is how Maloof reasoned with himself: someone who does so many self-portraits (Maier produced tons of them), clearly wants to be seen and remembered. So he decided to become a kind of an advertising agent for the late photographer and began actively promoting her work. He organised exhibitions, created vivianmaier.com, wrote books and even became one of the directors of a documentary about Vivian Maier’s life.

The next issue concerned royalties and distribution of revenues received from exhibitions and other use of Vivian Maier’s photography. She didn’t have any children or family. John Maloof tried to be as honest as possible and acted according to the law. He hired a genealogy expert who found Vivian’s closest living relative. It turned out to be Sylvain Jaussaud, a first cousin once removed, a citizen of France. Maloof contacted him and made a copyright purchase agreement with him for Maier’s works.

Last year, however, a businesslike lawyer, David Deal, saw a major injustice in the fact that someone not related to Vivian Maier is making profit from her works. Deal hired his own expert, who, on Maier’s mother’s side, found a Francis Baille, another first cousin once removed. According to the Times, Baille, “Had no idea he was related to Maier,” but agreed to let Deal represent him in court in an attempt to prove his rightful heirship. The court proceedings are still under way, so at this point it is difficult to predict the outcome. But in the aftermath of legal complications Maier’s works are disappearing from exhibitions – until there is certainty as to the copyright ownership.

Risking to lose her photographs, Maloof decided to make a documentary about her. “Finding Vivian Maier” is an attempt to find out more about her reclusive life – and more importantly to try to find reasons for her reclusiveness. Why didn’t Maier ever look for her audience? Why did she keep so much material without trying to do any selective work? What did she want to manifest through her oeuvres?

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