March 13, 2011

From behind the lens, she depicted a world

A Chicago nanny who took thousands of photos in her spare time is lauded posthumously as an artist.

By SHARON COHEN The Associated Press

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Vivian Maier
click image to enlarge

This is an undated and untitled self-portrait of Vivian Maier.

AP/Maloof Collection/Vivian Maier

SEE SOME of Vivian Maier's work at www.vivianmaier.com and www.vivianmaierprints.com.

Then a serendipitous moment: As he was filing loose negatives and about to throw out a shoe box that had been stuffed in the larger box, he spotted an address in north suburban Highland Park.

Bingo. A starting point.

TWO SEPARATE IDENTITIES

The address led Maloof to Lane and Matthew Gensburg, two of the brothers who had posted the obituary.

And so the mystery of Vivian Maier's life began to unravel.

Vivian Maier, it turned out, had two distinct identities: a nanny for the Gensburgs and other families in a 40-year career on the affluent North Shore. And before, during and after work, a photographer who chronicled the gritty drama and tender moments of street life in and around Chicago.

Maloof, now 29, and his college-buddy-turned-business partner, Anthony Rydzon, tracked down families Maier had worked for, hired genealogists and chronicled her path from New York to France to the Chicago area.

A picture of Vivian Maier slowly emerged: Fiercely independent. Eccentric. Opinionated. Private, yet confrontational.

She was a Mary Poppins who took her young charges on adventures such as strawberry picking, topped off with an ice cream-making session. A collector of everything from Marshall Field's bags to railroad spikes. A frugal shopper who told the homeless where to buy bruised fruit for a few cents.

Her style was distinctive. So, too, was her look.

Maier, a big-boned woman with a high-pitched French accent, covered her shortly cropped hair with hats. Her face was free of makeup. Her clothes were matronly and usually second-hand. Her shoes were mannish.

She did not mince words.

"She came on strong," Maren Baylaender says of Maier, who was hired by her husband to care for his disabled daughter during the late 1980s and early '90s. "Whatever she had to say was more like a statement than a discussion."

She had opinions about everything: American Indians? They'd gotten a raw deal. Women? Just as capable as men. Marriage? No thanks.

As a nanny, Maier tended to move often, but she remained with the Gensburgs more than 15 years, becoming a beloved family member -- and staying in touch long after she departed.

The three Gensburg sons, now in their 50s, helped Maloof by opening a giant storage locker packed with Maier's trunks, clothes, negatives, 8-mm films, audiotapes -- and a birth certificate showing she'd been born in 1926 in New York (not in France, as the obituary said) to a French mother and Austrian father.

Lane Gensburg's voice softens when he recalls life with Vivian.

"I think she could actually communicate with children much better than she did with adults," says Gensburg, a lawyer who was just an infant when Maier arrived. "She did amazing things with us, things out of the ordinary" -- like staging plays for the neighborhood kids, taking them to a Chinese New Year's parade, visiting a cemetery.

"She was a free spirit -- that's the only way you can really describe her," Gensburg says. "She had no real interest in material possessions."

Maier's photos range from 1949 to the mid-1990s. Mostly, her black-and-white images depict the poor, women (especially well-dressed dowagers) and children. After switching to color in the mid- to late '70s, she turned to graffiti, inanimate objects -- and garbage.

So what makes her work special?

"She had an open and inclusive and very fundamental idea of what constituted 'America' that was missed by a lot of photographers in the 1950s and '60s," says Allan Sekula, the photographer who bought some of her negatives and teaches at the California Institute of the Arts.

"It's both the variety and a kind of quirky democratic energy of street life," he says. "She connected herself through the camera to the street in a way that gave her a charmed presence."

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